Arabic numerals are the 10 digits from zero to nine that form the basis of Western mathematics. Despite their name, Arabic numbers descended from a numeral system developed by ancient Indian mathematicians. Persians and Arab mathematicians in India used the numerals widely, and they were eventually adopted by Arabs in further western regions before being taken on in Europe.
The nine digits used today evolved from the Brahmi numerals, an indigenous Indian numeral system from the third century B.C. Buddhist inscriptions from that time period show the use of symbols corresponding to the numbers one, four and six. By the middle of the second century B.C., Babylonian mathematicians had developed a numeral system with 60 as its base. It took until the ninth century A.D. for zero to appear in academic inscriptions. However, archaeological evidence unearthed in central India and Iran indicates the use of all nine numerals as far back as the seventh century A.D.
Between the years 825 and 830, Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi and Arab mathematician Al-Kindi each wrote separate books on the principles of using Arabic numerals. These books led to the diffusion of the numbers into the Middle East and parts of the West. In the 10th century, Middle Eastern scholars used the numerals to develop fractions and percentages. Later that same century, a mathematician called Sind ibn Ali introduced the decimal point. With this came a new way of writing numbers called "sand-table." Eventually, sand-table numerals took the shape of the written numbers used today.
The first mention of Arabic numbers in the West is found in the "Codex Vigilanus," a historical account of Hispania published in 976. Pope Sylvester II began to spread knowledge of Arabic numerals throughout Europe beginning in the 980s. As a student, Sylvester studied a form of mathematics and requested that Italian and Algerian scholars translate some of the earlier mathematical texts into common European languages. This was accomplished more fully in 1202 with a book by Leonardo of Pisa called "Liber Abaci."
The acceptance of Arabic numerals in Europe was precipitated by the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Other major events in Britain helped to bring greater awareness of math. For example, an inscription on the bell tower of Heathfield Church in Sussex in 1445, and a 1470 inscription on the tomb of the Earl of Huntly in Scotland, show the use of Arabic numbers by the powerful and elite. By the mid-16th century, Arabic numerals were in common use throughout most of Europe.
- Visage/Stockbyte/Getty Images