The origin of…Zero

“Love means never having to say you’re a zero.” Bradley Whitford

Post 22 Zero

The Babylonians were the first to invent a positional (or place value) system, the system we use today.  In a positional system the value of a character depends on its position. For example, the 8 in 89 has a different value than the 8 in 1.258. The Babylonians used a sexagesimal system, meaning they counting in sixties, instead of in tens, like we do. Since there was no zero, they left a space between sexagesimal numerals (to show that you meant 3,604 (3,600 being 6 times 60) and not 64 for example). But this could lead to errors, so around 300 BC they came up with a separator. And although it wasn´t used at the end of numbers, it was basically the first zero.

In Meso-America the Olmecs were probably the inventors of the zero around 50 BC, although some debate this and say the Mayans invented the zero around 350 AD. Both civilizations used a vigesimal place value system and put a zero in their Long Count calendar, but they never used it in calculations.

The third invention took place in India around 450 AD, although some say it was passed down from Babylonian astronomers to Indian astronomers. In India the zero was used not only as a space but also as a number. In the Brahmasputha Siddhanta written in 628 AD by Brahmagupta was the first to formalize arithmetic calculations using zero. He used dots that were called sunya, empty.
The Hindus introduced the zero to the Chinese and Arabs. In the ninth century, the first one to work on equations equaling zero (algebra as we know it) was Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi. He also came up with ways to multiply and divide numbers that we call now algorithms, a name that comes from his name. He was also the one who called zero sifr, from which cipher and zero derive.

The Arabs brought the zero (and their numerals) to Europe in the 12th century with the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1202 Fibonacci wrote in his book Liber Abaci (Abacus book) about the modus Indorum (method of the Indians), now known as Arabic numerals, which consists of using the numbers 0-9 and place value.
Italian merchants and German bankers quickly recognized the usability of this new system. They could balance their books by equaling the assets and liabilities (the positive and negative amounts) to zero. But governments were suspicious and outlawed the system. Merchants though, continued to use it in encrypted messages (compare cipher and decipher from Arabic sifr).
The problem that continued to exist was dividing by zero. In the 1660´s, Newton and Leibniz solved this by working with numbers that approach zero (infinitesimal calculus).

1. the number 0
2. the temperature shown by the zero mark on a thermometer
3. nothing at all (source: Merriam Webster).

The English word zero comes from Venetian zero, from Italian zefiro, from Medieval Latin zephirum, from Arabic صفر, ṣafira/ ṣifr, it is empty/zero, translation of Sanskrit sunya-m, empty place, desert, naught.
Spanish cero and Italian zero have the same roots.
Dutch nul finds its origins in Old French nulle or Italian nulla, nothing, from Latin nūllus, consisting of ne, not/no, and ūllus, some(thing), diminutive of ūnus, one.

Zero in other languages:
Dutch: nul
Spanish: cero
Italian: zero


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