Hindu mathematicians of the 300's and 200's BC used a system based on 10. The Hindus had symbols for each number from one to nine. They had a name for each power of 10, and used these names when writing numerals. For example, Hindus wrote "1 sata, 3 dasan, 5" to represent the number we write as 135. They wrote "1 sata, 5" for the number we write as 105.

Probably about AD 600, the Hindus found a way of eliminating place names. They invented the symbol sunya (meaning empty), which we call zero. With this symbol, they could write "105" instead of "1 sata, 5."

During the 700's, the Arabs learned Hindu arithmetic from scientific writings of the Hindus and the Greeks. Then, in the 800's, a Persian mathematician wrote a book that was translated into Latin about 300 years later. This translation brought the Hindu-Arabic numerals into Europe.

Several hundred years passed before the Hindu-Arabic system became widely used. Many persons liked Hindu-Arabic numerals because they could easily use them to write out calculations. Others preferred Roman numerals because they were accustomed to solving problems on a device called an abacus without writing out the calculations. After the development of printing from movable type in the 1400's, many mathematics textbooks were published. Most of them showed calculations using the Hindu-Arabic system. These books brought the system into widespread use.

Mathematicians regard the Hindu-Arabic system as one of the world's greatest inventions. Its greatness lies in the principle of place value and in the use of zero. These two ideas make it easy to represent numbers and to perform mathematical operations that would be difficult with any other kind of system.


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