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Babylonian numerals


Babylonian numerals

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 either the Sumerian or the Eblaite civilizations.[1] Neither of the predecessors was a positional system (having a convention for which ‘end’ of the numeral represented the units).


  • Origin 1
  • Characters 2
  • Numerals 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • Bibliography 6
  • External links 7


This system first appeared around 2000 BC;[1] its structure reflects the decimal lexical numerals of Semitic languages rather than Sumerian lexical numbers.[2] However, the use of a special Sumerian sign for 60 (beside two Semitic signs for the same number)[1] attests to a relation with the Sumerian system.[2]


The Babylonian system is 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 ( to count units and 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 quite similar to that of Roman numerals; for example, the combination 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 : 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. [3]

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.


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 ) to mark the nonexistence of a digit in a certain place value.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Stephen Chrisomalis (2010). Numerical Notation: A Comparative History. p. 247. 
  2. ^ a b Stephen Chrisomalis (2010). Numerical Notation: A Comparative History. p. 248. 
  3. ^


  • McLeish, John (1991). Number: From Ancient Civilisations to the Computer. HarperCollins.  

External links

  • Babylonian numerals
  • Cuneiform numbers
  • Babylonian Mathematics
  • tablet (YBC 7289) from the Yale Babylonian Collectionroot(2)High resolution photographs, descriptions, and analysis of the
  • tablet from the Yale Babylonian Collectionroot(2)Photograph, illustration, and description of the
  • Babylonian Numerals by Michael Schreiber, Wolfram Demonstrations Project.
  • Weisstein, Eric W., "Sexagesimal", MathWorld.
  • CESCNC - a handy and easy-to use numeral converter
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