1, 2, 3, 4 – we take our numbers for granted 17 May 2013

CAN you imagine trying to multiply the Roman numerals XXXIII (33) by 100?

The answer is MMMCCC, but there’s no logical way of working it out for those of us used to the modern numbering system. Imagine what business would have been like if we had never discovered the numerals 1,2,3,4 etc but were stuck with the Roman numbers. There would probably have been less tax to pay because it would have taken everyone so long to work out how much was required!

According to Jane Gleeson-White, author of a book called Double Entry, the Hindu-Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4 …) were slow to take on in Europe. It seems they started to be recognised from about the year 1200. However, the church was nervous of mathematics, considering it related to magic. A philosopher, Roger Bacon, tried to promote the new notation as good for science and academic learning, including theology, he was rewarded with life imprisonment.

The numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 … and double entry bookkeeping really took off in Venice in the 15th century when it was the third biggest city in Europe and the centre for trading.


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