The use of numbers is said to distinguish mankind from other animals; but natural scientists do suggest that birds can actually discern numbers. Birds recognise one, two or three things. Any larger number is handled with the concept of ‘many’ – or flock?
We too were content with that simplistic numeric approach until civilisation found us trading labour and skills within an ever-expanding social community; we needed a broader concept.
The Mesopotamians met the challenge first and developed a system of numbers; some of their descriptive terms are still significant today. Length units were grain, finger, foot, cubit, step, reed, rod, cord, cable and league; area units were shekel, garden, quarter-field, half-field, field and estate; volumes were shekel, bowl, vessel, bushel and gur-kube; mass units were grain, shekel, pound and load; time periods were gesh, watch, day, month and year.
By 3000 BCE the dozen or so separate systems had evolved and became integrated. The system was based on the root of 60, which numerically is a very useful number as it is divisible by twelve integers – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30 and 60 itself.
For example, a day was set as the unit of time, thirty days were summed to a month, and 360 days to a year. It is of course from the same system that we still express time and angles using the root 60.
India introduced positional numbers rather than stand-alone integers and gave zero proper status as a number. The Egyptians introduced the base 10 in around 3,100 BCE. Perhaps this is why their vassals had Ten Commandments?
The Romans developed their numbering system using a series of seven symbols that could be scored or scribed and combined to express any number using the letters I, V, X, L, C, D and M.
I personally discovered something of a flaw in the Roman system when you try to apply it today to the very large numbers that back then were probably seldom contemplated. During 1990 we were preparing to launch the Property Business Show for 1991 and the creative team came up with a brochure featuring a Greco-Roman building with pillars that would show the roman numerals for 1991 across its frieze, but just how was 1991 written?
The natural approach would be to long-windedly come up with MDCCCCLXXXXI, but this was not particularly elegant. But MDCCCCIXC did not seem to be correct positional usage. Deducting the nine or IX from that final C felt wrong as it might be read as being attached to the C preceding it or to the final C?
It felt no better to take it away directly from 2000 or MM, thus MIXM or IXMM; though movies and TV program ‘ident’ pages did later adopt the MIXM approach for its useful brevity.
At the time we contacted the British Museum for an authoritative view; they pondered it for a while and came back to confess that they really did not know.
The Moors moved across from North Africa to occupy Spain from 700 to 1492 CE, bringing with them their modern number system. This spread throughout Europe from the 11th century onwards.
So why did things become so complicated in the UK? Sixteen ounces to a pound, fourteen pounds to a stone, eight stones to a hundredweight, 2240 pounds in a ton. Eight pints to a gallon, eight quarts to a peck, four pecks in a bushel, thirty-six gallons to the barrel. Four farthings to the penny, twelve pence in a shilling, twenty shillings to a pound, and twenty-one shillings in a guinea. Plus, twelve inches to the foot, three feet to a yard, six feet to a fathom, sixty-six feet in a chain, 220 yards in a furlong, 1760 yards in a mile, 43,560 square feet in an acre and 640 acres per square mile.
The simpler metric system was introduced during the French Revolution in December 1799 (though they called it the 18th Germinal, Year III) and it subsequently became widespread following Napoleon’s conquests. It established five standards – these were the metre for length, the litre for volume, the gram for mass, the ‘are’ for area – and the ‘stère’ was used for volumes of firewood.