The History of Mathematics

Mesopotamian Numbers and Mathematics

Did the Babylonians finally use a symbol to indicate an empty space in their numbers?

Yes, but it took centuries. In the meantime, scribes would not use a symbol representing an empty space in a text, but would use phrases such as “the grain is finished” at the end of a computation that indicated a zero. Apparently, the Babylonians did comprehend the concepts of void and nothing, but they did not consider them to be synonymous.

Around 400 B.C.E., the Babylonians finally began to record an empty space in their numbers, which were still represented in cuneiform. Interestingly, they did not seem to view this space as a number—what we would call zero today—but merely as a placeholder.


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