Math Basics

Basic Mathematical Operations

Where did the symbols for division originate?

The history behind the division symbols is long and complicated. The following lists how the major ones developed:

Closed parentheses—The arrangement “8)24” was used by Michael Stifel (1486 or 1487-1567) in Arithmetica integra, published in 1544. It eventually evolved into the closed parentheses, such as (8)(4).

The obelus—By 1659, Swiss mathematician Johann Heinrich Rahn (1622–1676) introduced the division symbol (÷, called an obelus) in his book Teutsche Algebra, a combination of “:” and “-”. (This division symbol was used by many writers before Rahn as a minus sign.) In 1668, when Rahn’s book was translated into English, with additions by English mathematician John Pell (1610–1685), the division symbol was retained. Some say Pell greatly influenced Rahn to develop the symbol, but most historians agree that there is little evidence of such a connection.

Slash—Another sign for division (/), the slash is actually first used for fractions, such as 2/3 or ½. It can be extended into other, larger or smaller numbers, such as 123/112 and 0.112/0.334. Little is known about its origins, but it is known that this symbol was sometimes used for subtraction, until it became standard practice for representing division.


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