Babylonian numerals

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Babylonian numerals

Babylonian numerals were written in cuneiform, using a wedge-tipped reed stylus to make a mark on a soft clay tablet which would be exposed in the sun to harden to create a permanent record.

The Babylonians, who were famous for their astronomical observations and calculations (aided by their invention of the abacus), used a sexagesimal (base-60) positional numeral system inherited from the Sumerian and also Akkadian civilizations. Neither of the predecessors was a positional system (having a convention for which ‘end’ of the numeral represented the units).

This system first appeared around 3100 BC. It is also credited as being the first known positional numeral system, in which the value of a particular digit depends both on the digit itself and its position within the number. This was an extremely important development, because non-place-value systems require unique symbols to represent each power of a base (ten, one hundred, one thousand, and so forth), making calculations difficult.

Only two symbols (Babylonian 1.svg to count units and Babylonian 10.svg to count tens) were used to notate the 59 non-zero digits. These symbols and their values were combined to form a digit in a sign-value notation way similar to that of Roman numerals; for example, the combination Babylonian 20.svgBabylonian 3.svg represented the digit for 23 (see table of digits below). A space was left to indicate a place without value, similar to the modern-day zero. Babylonians later devised a sign to represent this empty place. They lacked a symbol to serve the function of radix point, so the place of the units had to be inferred from context : Babylonian 20.svgBabylonian 3.svg could have represented 23 or 23×60 or 23×60×60 or 23/60, etc.

Their system clearly used internal decimal to represent digits, but it was not really a mixed-radix system of bases 10 and 6, since the ten sub-base was used merely to facilitate the representation of the large set of digits needed, while the place-values in a digit string were consistently 60-based and the arithmetic needed to work with these digit strings was correspondingly sexagesimal.

The legacy of sexagesimal still survives to this day, in the form of degrees (360° in a circle or 60° in an angle of an equilateral triangle), minutes, and seconds in trigonometry and the measurement of time, although both of these systems are actually mixed radix. [1]

A common theory is that 60, a superior highly composite number (the previous and next in the series being 12 and 120), was chosen due to its prime factorization: 2×2×3×5, which makes it divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30. Integers and fractions were represented identically — a radix point was not written but rather made clear by context.

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The Babylonians did not technically have a digit for, nor a concept of, the number zero. Although they understood the idea of nothingness, it was not seen as a number—merely the lack of a number. What the Babylonians had instead was a space (and later a disambiguating placeholder symbol Babylonian digit 0.svg) to mark the nonexistence of a digit in a certain place value.

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