How Medieval Europe Finally Ditched Roman Numerals

How Medieval Europe Finally Ditched Roman Numerals

2021-01-13 22:00:00

There is a joke that goes like this: Roman numerals. What are they good IV?

It's a fun pun for small numbers, but frankly, Roman numerals aren't much good – just try to do your taxes with them. By the sixth century AD (and possibly even earlier), a much better system, now called the Hindu-Arabic number system, was being developed in India. It only uses 10 numbers: one through nine, plus zero – and just those numbers. No special symbol needed for 50, 100, thousand or any other number – just combinations of those 10 digits.

The Hindu Arabic system is a place value system, which means that the position of a digit indicates its value. So in the number 459 the four stand for 400; the five represents 50. By aligning the numbers in columns, you can add and subtract quickly. A little bit of carrying and borrowing and you are also solid at multiplying and dividing.

This may seem obvious to us, since that's the numerical system we use now, but it wasn't that clear-cut to medieval Europeans. Until the 13th century they had to make do with Roman numerals. The Roman system was fine for recording amounts of things, but not great for manipulating those amounts. The abacus – or abacus – was useful, but limited. And for more complex calculations, Roman numerals were hopeless. This placed serious restrictions on trade, commerce and especially science.

(Credit: FabrikaSimf / Shutterstock)

Meanwhile, cultures using the Hindu Arab system not only had an easier time with basic arithmetic, but were also able to perform more complex math. This enabled them to make great strides in algebra and geometry, while Europeans toiled with Roman numerals.

Travel from India

While traders from India made their way to North Africa, they took their numbering system with them. By the 12th century, the Hindu Arab system was common in ports along the Mediterranean. Arab settlers had brought the system to Spain, and a few Italian scholars had discovered it and used it for scientific work. But to many it was not made known until the year 1202, when the Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa – whom we know today as Fibonacci, famous for number theory and the Fibonacci sequence – wrote a math book called Liber Abbaci (The Book of Calculation). In it, he urged people to put down the abacus and use the Hindu Arab system for calculations. And he showed them how. Fibonacci had learned the system as a child while spending time in Algeria. Being the genius he was, he immediately saw the potential.

However, the new system did not catch on quickly. For years, the book of Fibonacci was mainly read and understood by scholars, who gradually incorporated his teachings into their own books. And even then, the ancient Roman system – clumsy and limited as it was – worked well enough for what it was used for. Few could see the possibilities that the new system would open, and habits are difficult to change. Ultimately, however, the Hindu Arab system made its way into Europe.

Although it took time to understand and accept the Hindu Arab system, the changes it brought about were profound and transformed not only commerce and science, but everyday life. Once it became the standard way to learn math, it gave common people a way to master and use the power of math. In his book on Fibonacci, The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolutionwrote mathematician Keith Devlin, "What (Fibonacci) did was as revolutionary as the personal computer pioneers who used computers from a small group of 'computer types' in the 1980s and made computers available and usable by everyone. & # 39; & # 39;

We owe Indian and Arab mathematicians, through Fibonacci, to modern science – and to the fact that we don't have to do our taxes in Roman numerals.


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