How did Arithmetic Start?

Arithmetic may be called the science of numbers. The world itself comes from the Greek “arithmos” which means numbers. At First, men may have counted their sheep and oxen on the fingers of their hands.

The word “digit”, which means any single figure from 0 to 9 inclusive, reminds us of this, for “finger” in Latin is “digitus”. Then man got around to making notches on sticks and the next step was to invent a suitable notation a system by which each number might be recorded using signs and symbols.

The ancient Greeks used the letters of their alphabets for the purpose. The Roman carried this system a little further, dropping most of the alphabet and making seven letters do all the work. These letter systems were employed in writing sums, but, generally calculations were made with the aid of an abacus.


The Arabs introduced the notation which we use today based on the Hindu system. This had the innovation of a nought to indicate “place value” (an distinguishing, say, 13 from 1030). This simplified calculations enormously.

The Arabs called the figure 0 “sifr”, a word meaning empty. The first arithmetic to be written advising the use of the Arab notation was by an Italian in 1202. The first arithmetic to be printed was written in Latin, and came out in Italy in 1478.

Other early arithmetic were printed in 1484 and 1496. They included adding, subtracting and multiplying. In some Latin schools, arithmetic was studied only in the fifth and sixth years, and only then one hour a week was given to it. It should be remembered that the early books of arithmetic contained most of the modern methods and we owe a great debt of gratitude to their authors and the Hindus who inspired them.

It cannot be too strongly stressed that a complete mastery of the fundamental facts (or tables) in addition, multiplication, subtraction and division is necessary to a basic understanding in simple arithmetic.

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