History of Zero

Zero is a unique number that means “empty space” and that which represents a number and its use for computation. It was conceived from the Hindus from India. The earliest recorded evidence was found on the Gvalior inscription, however, the zero we are accustomed to today, came much later. Zero has two basic uses: to mean empty space or to represent a number used for computation. It is especially important in positional notations. Positional notations, is a numerical system in which each position is related to the next by a constant multiplier (ex. 10).

Positional notations require an indication of the number zero because zero is a placeholder. It allows us to tell the different between 23, 203, and 230. Without zero, it would be impossible to tell them apart. The decimal system, for example, uses 10 as a base, and zero is required for 10 to be the base. Otherwise, it would just be a “1”. According to records, Babylonians were the first to use symbols for numbers. They used wedge-shaped symbols and the sexagesimal base system which dated back to over 4000 years ago. There was, however, no symbol for indicating an empty position.

There are a few occasions in their system when an empty position is needed, and the early Babylonians relied on context to make clear the value of the number system written. The Egyptians also used a symbolic number system but their system was not positional thus it does not use or required zero to prevent misinterpreting the value. The Native North Americans used a numeration system of various bases; however, there is no indication of place values or use of zero. The Mayans of Central America and southern Mexico used a positional, vigesimal system.

They showed the number zero in the symbol shaped like a half-closed eye which was found in early calendars. The Incas of Peru uses a decimal system that uses different types of knots as well a position of knots to indicate value. The Incans showed zero by indicating a gap between sets of knot indicating an absence of value. They absence of a knot showed that the last position was empty. The Hindu civilization in India first used use zero as a placeholder as well as a number in calculations. The symbol for zero was a small circle.

Their system spread to China and later westward. In Europe, they were first used on Arabic counting boards. At first it was not accepted because they are not understood that they could be used without a counting board. It later gained acceptance when merchants and tradesmen began to use them. Many symbols were used for zero. The Hindu symbol was a dot and a later a “0” crossed by a horizontal or slanting line. A horizontal line that goes through a “0” was not very reliable however, because it was often confused with the Greek letter Theta. The alternative was a slash.

Today, zero is occasionally written with the slash through it to distinguish from the letter O. Early computations were done on various forms of counting boards such as the abacus. Sand table, a flat surface covered with a light coating of sand, were also used. Marks in the sand indicated the number values and when computations are finished, the sand is smoothed. Counting boards divided into columns or rows for place. Various types of markers were used to indicate value. On counting boards, zero was shown by indicating an empty cell, column, or row.

Computations with zero were difficult to understand, especially for people who were unfamiliar with computations using the 10 digits. When a number is divided by zero, it remains unchanged. A number with zero in the denominator also remained the same even when things are added or subtracted from it. Subtracting a number from zero resulted in a negative number. These ideas caused further confusion, not understanding, of the number “0”. Subtracting a number from zero was especially a difficult concept because people found it very difficult to comprehend negative numbers.

Many regarded zero in computations as absurd. Pascal, a French mathematician, regarded arithmetic with zero as “utter nonsense. ” Augustus DeMorgan, a Brtish mathematician felt that negative numbers as a solution to an equations was “inconsistent, absurd” and had no “real meaning. ” Zero is a unique number that could be very difficult to understand. Many years of history help develop zero into what it is today. Since the time of the Hindu civilization, zero evolved dramatically. Today, zero is very significant and had become the basis for our current number system.

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