Where do we get our numbers from?

5,4,3,2,1 and 0.

We are so familiar with our numerical system that it never occurred to us to find out where numbers actually come from. Imagine a world where you could not count the numbers of days to your birthday or the amount you get paid at the end of each month?! (I do not know about you, but I would like to know that I am getting paid the right amount.)

The concept of counting has been around for centuries but how we use numerical notation has changed significantly since its origins. In the ancient Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian periods, tallies and symbols were used. The ancient Romans, used what we commonly refer to as Roman numerals and came up with this concept in Europe between 900 and 800 BC. It came about as there was a need to develop a method of essential communication and trade. The symbols they used were:

M- 1000 – This was originally the Greek letter phi – Փ

D- 500

C- 100 – Said to probably be the Greek letter theta- Θ

L- 50 – This was the Greek letter psi- Ψ 

A single line, or “I,” referred to one unit or finger, the “V” represented five fingers, with the V-shape made by the thumb and forefinger on the hand and “X” equalled two hands (crossing one forearm over the other) representing 10 units.

Have a go at trying to work out what these numbers are (answers at the end of the page):


The Roman numerals like the others, do come with their flaws. For example, there is no way to calculate fractions or decimal numbers which made it difficult to understand or do any sort of sophisticated maths. Another flaw that the Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian and Roman numerical systems had in common was that the symbols had to be put one after the other, in the order that the number was to be said, which made it difficult to write much larger numbers. Imagine having to write ‘Happy LXXVI th Birthday’ on your great aunt’s birthday cake instead of 76tH, or having to use a monkey and other symbols on a birthday cake! We would probably find very strange.

So how did we end up with our current way of counting?

In the fifth century AD, an Indian Astronomer called Aryabatta introduced the ‘new’ numerical notation which then, in the 12th century, made its way to Europe through the Middle Eastern mathematicians al-Kindi and al- Khwarizmi. These numbers are the ones that are used universally today and have been used for nearly nine centuries. But the most profound thing that came with the Indian numerical system brought about was the number zero. By doing this, they brought about a symbolto represent having nothing or for increasing a number ten fold. Surprisingly to most, the number zero is a relatively new concept.

(Yes, zero was not always part of the number system is some parts of the world!)

Peter Gobets, secretary of the ZerOrigIndia Foundation, or the Zero Project said, “The Indian [or numerical] zero, widely seen as one of the greatest innovations in human history, is the cornerstone of modern mathematics and physics, plus the spin-off technology”. This foundation, based in the Netherlands, researches the origins of the zero digit.

So never underestimate the power of a few zeros. They determine if you will win £20 in a lottery or £20,000.

Demi Bako


MXII = 1012

DLVI = 556

LXVII = 67

MIII = 1003

CLXVI = 166

Well done if you attempted them and got them right!

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