Counting is an essential part of our life. Our day begins with counting and ends with counting. We count the number of apples we eat and liters of milk we buy. We count the money to buy a chocolate and kilometers we need travel to reach the city.
As Denise Schmandt Besserat say, in his “The History of Counting”, we have taken counting for granted and have forgotten that the method of counting that we use today had to be invented and that it took many centuries to assume the present form.
People did not count the way we do today. Different people used different methods of counting. There was a group of people in Sri Lanka called Veddas. They were very simple people and lived on fruits and tubers. They did not need huge numbers in theri simple life. Therefore they used only general terms like “a single”, “a couple”, “another one” and “many” to count. When a Vedda had to count coconuts, he would collect some pebbles and keep one pebble for one coconut. and say, “a single”. Then he would keep one more pebble saying “a couple”, then would keep onemore pebble and say “another one” and finally would show all the pebbles and say, “so many”.
There was another group of people called Papua in New Guinea. They did not create any special words for counting at all. They used their body parts to count. The left hand little finger meant 1, ring finger 2, the middle finger 3, pointing finger 4, thumb 5, wrist 6, forearm 7, elbow 8, upper arm 9 and shoulder joint 10. Like this they could count up to 28. Whenever they had to bargain in the market they would show their body parts.
There were some groups of people who used a rope to count. They would tie a knot for every ‘One’ they counted. After counting they would say “So many”. Some counted by making a notch on the bone. As many notches as the number of things they had to count.
The way we count today is called “Abstract Counting”. Sumerians were the first people to use abstract counting. They used different symbols for 1, 10, 60, 600, 3600, 36,000. This was a great method of counting but did not have zero. To indicate no value they just left a blank space which was quite confusing.
Later on Phoenicians, who discovered the Alphabet, used the letters of alphabet for numbers.
A =1, B =2, C=3, D=4,
E=5, F=6, G=7, H=8, I =9,
J=10, K =20, L =30, M = 40,
N = 50, O=60, P=70, Q=80, R=90,
S =100, T=200, U=300, V=400,
W =500, X=600, Y=700, Z=800,
?= 800, ?=900
The Egyptians used special symfbols for writing numbers. They could write up to 1000,000. Their symbols are:
The Romans used some of the letters in the alphabet for numerals.
In Roman numerals 5785= MMMMMDCCCCV
Though it was not as complicated as Egyptian numerals it lacked zero. For many years Roman numerals were used. Even today we see Roman numerals in some clocks.
No one knows who invented the numerals we use today.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
These are called Arabic numerals because they were introduced by Arabs. Arabs called them, “Hindu Numerals” because they got them from Indians.
The Indo-Arabic numerals had zero. These numbers were prevalent as early as 500 AD in India. We do not how long it was in use before that. The first mention of zero is found in the writings of Aryabhatta a great Indian Mathematician as early as 498 AD. It was called “Shoonya”. The Hindu numerals were
Now, we can count and write up to any number. One largest number is Googol. (1 followed by hundred zeros) and googolplex (1 followed by googol of zeroes). If we needed to count beyond this we could keep adding zeros like this:
Thus with zero and nine numbers i.e. 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. 8 and 9 counting has become easy and limitless. Zero has made the Arithmetic operations addition, subtraction, multiplication and division easier. Zero is indeed a great invention of humankind.