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Carrie Nader


Numeration Essay

Although different numeration systems of the past may seem and especially look

extremely different than our current system, they actually have a lot in common. I want to take a

closer look at the Egyptian and Roman number systems and compare and contrast them to our

current number system. Once I am able to explain all of this, I hope you will be able to see how

the different number systems of the past relate to today’s number system and how it may even

help us understand numbers a little better.

The Indo-Arabic System:

The Egyptian number system was one of the earliest number systems, around 3400 B.C.

that is and was written as hieroglyphics on stone tablets. Their system was based on the number

ten, much like ours. They had symbols for the first few powers of 10 then they would just

perform addition to get the exact number they wanted to display. This is very similar to our

system. Now we don’t have hieroglyphics today like they did, in fact their hieroglyphics

symbolized powers of ten, but they also had other meanings for example, the symbol for 1 means

a staff and so on like in the figure shown on the next page. If the Egyptians wanted to show any

number, for example, 13 they would place the symbol for 10 which also was the symbol for a
yoke, and three staff symbols after it. The major difference between their system and ours is the

fact they are drawings, they have other meanings and lastly, we don’t write a 10 and then three

1’s to show that our number is 13.

The Egyptian System:

The Roman numeral system always confused me as a child and sometimes it still

confuses me. This was the only other number system I was shown as a child other than our

current one we have now, and I never understood how “letters” as I knew them translated into

numbers. However it is a very good system to know about because we use it so often. At first

this system was completely additive, similar to the Egyptian style. Instead of going up powers of

ten it went up in halves, is the best way I can explain it with it starting from 1 then going, 5, 10,

50, 100, 500, 1000, etc. as shown in the figure. Then eventually as they realized they needed an

easier way to write numbers, especially big ones, they started writing it it different. In the

original way the number 4 was written IIII, then they found a way they could write it only using
two symbols and since they knew four was only one less than five they started writing “one less

than five” or “4” as IX the number you took away goes in front of the bigger numeral. They are

very different from our system because their way of organizing numbers is not like our that

much. I guess the one way this system is similar to ours, is they were able to find a simpler way

to write larger numbers and no other system had done that before, at least not this simple. They

even are able to write a number as big as 900 with only two symbols which is CM. Since M is

1000 and C is 100, that is 1000-100 which is 900.

Roman Numeral System:

In summary each of the systems are connected an alike in some way but also very

different in others. However, as we discovered today, they all eventually relate and lead to the

Indo-Arabic system we have today which, I would say is the simplest and one that makes the

most sense out of all of them, but I am sure that’s because it is was I grew up learning and am

comfortable with, and I'm sure the people long ago, who grew up with their systems were used to