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. 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 2000 BC; its structure reflects the decimal lexical numerals of Semitic languages rather than Sumerian lexical numbers. However, the use of a special Sumerian sign for 60 (beside two Semitic signs for the same number) attests to a relation with the Sumerian system.
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), which can make calculations more 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.
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.
- Stephen Chrisomalis (2010). Numerical Notation: A Comparative History. p. 247.
- Stephen Chrisomalis (2010). Numerical Notation: A Comparative History. p. 248.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Babylonian numerals.|
- Babylonian numerals
- Cuneiform numbers
- Babylonian Mathematics
- High resolution photographs, descriptions, and analysis of the root(2) tablet (YBC 7289) from the Yale Babylonian Collection
- Photograph, illustration, and description of the root(2) tablet from the Yale Babylonian Collection
- Babylonian Numerals by Michael Schreiber, Wolfram Demonstrations Project.
- Weisstein, Eric W. "Sexagesimal". MathWorld.
- CESCNC - a handy and easy-to use numeral converter