Numbers are all around us.

The date, the time, prices, ID numbers, they’re everywhere.

To say life would be difficult without numbers would be an understatement: a functional society would simply not exist.

So where did numbers come from? Why are they written the way they are? How did we get here with them?

To answer these questions, let’s go back in time, and see how numbers went hand in hand with the birth of humanity (and everything thereafter).

Glasgow Times:

Historical origins

Humans have always understood the concept of quantities.

The earliest numerical systems were based on tally marks, going as far back as prehistoric times based on marks found in bones and rocks.

Ancient societies followed suit for smaller figures but began to adopt special characters to represent larger numbers, removing the head-aching inefficiency of writing out a hundred lines.

To name a few examples, the Egyptians used tally mark lines for numbers one to nine and hieroglyphs to represent numbers larger than this, including a kneeling person for a million.

The Minoans, precursors to the Ancient Greeks, used a combination of lines, circles and grid-like characters to represent tens, hundreds, and thousands respectively.

The Romans had their well-known numeral system that you can still see used every now and then to this day: V is used to represent five, X for 10, C for 100 and M for 1000.

Invention of the modern numerical system

Meanwhile, in India, a whole different numeral system that allowed for the expression of very large numbers was being developed. It enabled any number to be expressed with any combination of nine glyphs, with use of the number zero to express larger numbers and decimals to express fractional quantities (sound familiar?).

Muslim scholars including a Persian mathematician called Al-Khwarizmi would later remark upon this system’s ease of use in performing calculations.

The need for calculations to facilitate trade led to its widespread adoption and modification across the Arab world, hence why we call them Hindu-Arabic numerals.

A similar pattern would play out in Europe when an Italian accountant known as Leonardo Bonoacci became enamoured by them while on a trading mission.

Nowadays, we know him as the mathematician, Fibonacci. He evangelised using the Hindu-Arabic numeral system among Pisa’s merchants upon publishing a book called Liber Abaci, or the Book of Calculation. 

This numerical system was convenient in simplifying calculations (especially multiplication and division) and by the 15th century they had largely replaced the Roman numeral system.

The age of European exploration and conquest then spread the Hindu-Arabic numeral system across the world to become today’s numerical mainstay.

As history demonstrates, a number system was the key to ensuring resource allocation through government and trade could exist.

Going from tribes dividing the meat from a hunt to the financial systems modern society lives by relied on the ability to express quantities quickly and methodically. It was key to ensuring humans prospered as a species.

Beyond counting numbers

Numbers have many uses beyond simply counting though, since every aspect of our lives can be measured.

For example, can you quantify beauty? Yes, and the answer is 1.618. There’s your next idea for a date night compliment.

Joking aside, as any designer will tell you, positioning matters.

Using the Golden Ratio, where the larger of two design elements is 1.618 times larger than its smaller counterpart, will have you follow in the steps of many different designs: ancient Greek temples, the Mona Lisa and (for a closer-to-home example) the arrangement of tiles at Glasgow Science Centre’s Fibonacci Garden. One of the possible reasons why it appeals to the human eye is its frequent appearance in nature, including in flower petals and pinecones.

Additionally, quantities have been used as the basis for superstitions, which can lead to real-world effects.

A study conducted in China, where eight is considered a lucky number, found that hotel prices that contain this number somewhere will receive higher numbers of bookings and earn the hotel higher ratings on average.

Why exactly are some numbers considered lucky, and others unlucky? Much of it either comes down to religion or mathematics.

Seven is considered lucky as it took God seven days to create the world in the Bible, and three likewise due to the Holy Trinity.

By extension, 21 is considered lucky as it is the product of seven and three. If you’ve ever wondered why someone’s 21st birthday feels special, there’s your answer!

And wouldn’t you just know it? Glasgow Science Centre turns 21 this July!

By Shaun Edmond, Glasgow Science Centre