Renaissance Science – IX

The part of mathematics that we most use in our lives is numbers, the building blocks of arithmetic. Today, we mostly use the Hindu-Arabic numerals and the associated place value decimal system, but this was not always the case. In fact, although this number system first entered Europe during the 12th century translation movement, it didn’t become truly established until well into the Renaissance.

First, we will briefly track the Hindu-Arabic place value decimal system from its origins till its advent in Europe. The system emerged in India sometime late in the sixth century CE. Āryabhaṭa (476–550) a leading mathematician and astronomer doesn’t mention them in his Aryasiddhanta. The earliest known source being in the Āryabhaṭīyabhāṣya of Bhāskara I (c. 600–c. 680) another leading astronomer mathematician. The full system, as we know it today, was described in the Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta of Brahmagupta (c. 598–c. 668 n. Chr.). The only difference is that he allows division by zero, which as we all learnt in the school is not on.

The Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta was translated into Arabic in about 770 by Ibrahim ibn Habib ibn Sulayman ibn Samura ibn Jundab al-Fazri (d. 777), Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Habib ibn Sulayman ibn Samura ibn Jundab al-Fazri (d. c. 800) and Yaʿqūb ibn Ṭāriq (d. c. 796). The first two are father and son. Having teams doing scientific translations in the middle ages was actually very common. I won’t go into detail, but it should be noted that it took several hundred years for this system to replace the existing number systems in Arabic culture, many mathematicians preferring their own systems, which they considered superior.

The system first came into Europe in the 12th century through the translation of a work by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwārizmī (c. 780–c. 850) by an unknown translator. No Arabic manuscript of this work is known to exist, and it is only known by its Latin title Algoritmi de Numero Indorum, where Algoritmi is a corruption of al-Khwārizmī.

This translation only had a very limited impact. The new number system was adopted by the scholars at the universities as part of computus in order to calculate the date of Easter and the other moveable Church feasts. Leading scholars such as Sacrobosco wrote textbooks to teach the new discipline, which was Algorimus, another corruption of al-Khwārizmī. The other mostly university-based scholars, who used mathematics extensively, the astronomers, continued to use a sexagesimal i.e., base sixty, number system that they had inherited from both the Greek and the Arabic astronomers. This system would stay in use by astronomers down to Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (1543) and beyond.


This is the opening page of a 1490 manuscript copy of Johannes de Sacro Bosco’s Tractatus de Arte Numerandi, also referred to as his Algorismus Source:

What about the world outside of the universities? In the outside world the new number system was simply ignored. Which raises the question why? People generally believe that the base ten place value number system is vastly superior to the Roman numeral system that existed in Europe in the Middle ages, so why didn’t the people immediately adopt it? After all you can’t do arithmetic with Roman numerals. The thing is people didn’t do arithmetic with Roman numerals, although it would have been possible using different algorithm to the ones we use for the decimal place-value system. People did the calculations using either finger reckoning


of counting boards, also known as reckoning boards or abacuses. They only used the roman numerals to record the results.


Counting Board

In the hands of a skilled operator the counting board is a powerful instrument. It can be used very simply for addition and subtraction and using the halving and doubling algorithms, almost as simply for multiplication and division. A skilled operator can even extract roots using a counting board. The counting board also offers the possibility in a business deal for the reckoning masters of both parties to observe and control the calculations on the counting board.

The widespread use of counting boards over many centuries is still reflected in modern word usage. The serving surface in a shop is called a counter because it was originally the counting board on which the shop owner did their calculations. The English finance ministry is called the Exchequer after a special kind of counting board on which they did they calculations in the past. Nobody pays much attention to the strange term bankrupt, which also has its origins in the use of counting boards. The original medieval banks in Northern Italy were simply tables, Italian banca, on the marketplace, on which a printed cloth counting board was spread out. If the bankers were caught cheating their customers, then the authorities came and symbolically destroyed their table, in Italian, banca rotta, broken table.

Things first began to change slowly with the second introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals by Leonardo from Pisa (c. 1175–c. 1250) in his Liber Abbaci (1202, 2nd edition 1227).


Leonardo from Pisa Liber Abbaci

This was basically a book on commercial arithmetic, following its Arabic origins. The Arabic/Islamic culture used different number systems for different tasks and used the Hindu-Arabic numerals and the decimal place-value system extensively in commercial arithmetic, in general account keeping, to calculate rates of interest, shares in business deals and the division of inheritance according to the complex Islamic inheritance laws. Leonardo’s father was a customs officer in North Africa, and it was here that Leonard learnt of the Hindu-Arabic numerals and the decimal place-value system from Arab traders in its usage as commercial arithmetic.

This new introduction saw the gradual spread in Norther Italy of Scuole or Botteghe D’abbaco (reckoning schools) lead by a Maestri D’abbaco (reckoning master), who taught this new commercial arithmetic to apprentice traders from Abbaco Libro (reckoning books), which he usually wrote himself. Many leading Renaissance mathematici, including Peter Apian (1495–1552, Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia (c. 1500–1557), Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576), Gemma Frisius (1508–1555) and Robert Recorde (c. 1512–1558), wrote a published abbacus books. The very first printed mathematics book the Arte dell’Abbaco also known as the Treviso Arithmetic (1478) was , as the title clearly states, an abacus book.


Un maestro d’abaco. Filippo Calandri, De arimetricha opusculum, Firenze 1491

This practice began to accelerate with the introduction of double entry bookkeeping. This was part of the more general so-called commercial revolution, which included the founding of the first banks and the introduction of bills of exchange to eliminate the necessity of traders carrying large amounts of gold or silver. Developments in Europe that lead to the Renaissance. The earliest known example of double entry bookkeeping is the Messari Report of the Republic of Genoa, 1340. The earliest account of double entry bookkeeping is the Libro dell’arte di mercatura by Benedetto Cotrugli (1416–1469), which circulated in manuscript but was never printed. The first printed account was in the highly successful Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita of Fra. Luca Bartolemeo Pacioli (c.1447–1517) published in 1494, which contain the twenty-seven-page introduction to double entry bookkeeping, Particularis de computis et scripturis.



Particularis de computis et scripturis, about double-entry bookkeeping.

Beginning with the Southern German trading centres of Augsburg, Regensburg and Nürnberg, which all traded substantially with the Northern Italian commercial centres, the new commercial arithmetic and double entry bookkeeping began to expand throughout Europe. This saw the fairly rapid establishment of reckoning schools and the printing of reckoning books throughout the continent. We can see the partial establishment of the Hindu-Arabic numerals some four hundred years after their first introduction, although they were used principally for recording, the reckoning continuing to be done on a counting board, in many cases down to the eighteenth century.

Already in the fifteenth century we can see the glimmer of the base ten system moving into other mathematical areas. Peuerbach and Regiomontanus started using circles with radii of 10,000 or 100,000, suggesting base ten, to calculate their trigonometrical tables instead of radii of 60,000, base sixty. The use of such large radii was to eliminate the need for fractional values.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the base ten positional value number system with Hindu-Arabic numerals had become well established across the whole spectrum of number use, throughout Europe. The Indian decimal system had no fractions and decimal fractions were first introduced into the Hindu-Arabic numerals by Abu’l Hasan Ahmad ibn Ibrahim Al-Uqlidisi in his Kitab al-Fusul fi al-Hisab al-Hindi around 952 and then again independently by Ghiyāth al-Dīn Jamshīd Masʿūd al-Kāshī (c. 1380–1429) in his Key to Arithmetic (1427). They first emerged in Europe in 1585 in Simon Stevin’s De Thiende also published in French as La Disme. The decimal point or comma was first used in Europe by Christoph Clavius (1538–1612) in the goniometric tables for his astrolabe in 1593. Its use became widespread through its adoption by John Napier in his Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (1614).

However, at the end of the seventeenth century we still find both John Evelyn (1620–1706) and John Arbuthnot (1667–1735) discussing the transition from Roman to Hindu-Arabic numerals in their writings; the former somewhat wistfully, the later thankfully.

In the eighteenth century, Pierre-Simon Laplace reputedly said:

‘It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by ten symbols, each receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity, the great ease which it has lent to all computations, puts our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.’

A very positive judgement, with hindsight, of the base ten place value number system with Hindu-Arabic numerals but one that was obviously not shared in the Early Modern period when the system was initially on offer in Europe.


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Mathematics, Renaissance Science

5 responses to “Renaissance Science – IX

  1. A great post as ever, thank you! However, since you mention “the world outside the universities”, I am contractually obliged to urge you not to neglect the monasteries: there, no less than in the universities, computus was eagerly practised and the Hindu-Arabic numerals were enthusiastically adopted (albeit not to the exclusion of the Roman). 🙂

  2. John Kane

    Humans blew it. We would have been better off with 12 fingers.

    Great post BTW.

    • The Romans actually used a base twelve number system, which is why there are twelve inches in a foot.

    • Imre Miklós Gulyás

      You can count in a twelve-based system with only one hand. Your non-thumb fingers on each hand all have 3 sections, totaling 12, and you can keep track by touching your thumb to the section. I don’t remember where I learnt this.

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