The Fascinating History Of Zero

16th October 2017

It has long been a thought provoking and mysterious question in mathematics – when and where did the concept of zero begin – and when did we begin using a specific symbol to denote the concept?

Popular Oxford Maths Professor and celebrity Dr Marcus du Sautoy says “Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and our whole digital world is based on nothing or something. But there was a moment when there wasn’t this number.”

Excitingly evidence has recently been discovered of a symbol for zero appearing much earlier historically than previously thought. The Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in the village of Bakhshali in what is now modern Pakistan.

Image Of The Bakhshali Manuscript From University of Oxford's Bodleian Libraries

Despite the fact that the manuscript, which is made up of 70 fragmented pieces of writing on fragile birch bark and which contains numerous dots to denote zero, has been available to historians since 1902, no one knew exactly how old it was.

Until now it has not been carbon dated but recent analysis shows that the difficulty in defining its age was partly because there are documents from at least 3 different time periods, hundreds of years apart. The oldest we now know is from 224-383 AD, while the other two are from 680-779 AD and 885-993 AD.

This means that it contains world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today, five hundred years earlier than first thought. It is particularly special as these dots evolved into the hollowed out ‘dot’ that we use today. It also planted the seed for zero as an actual number, which is first discovered in the Brahmasphutasiddhanta text, written by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta in 628AD.

Previously, the oldest known example of a zero symbol in ancient India came from a temple in Gwalior that was constructed in 876 A.D.

Temple In Gwalilor

Zero was previously used in some cultures ancient times as a crude placeholder

There is some debate about exactly when this began but Harvard Professor of Maths and author of “The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero” Robert Kaplan postulates that the ancient Sumerians who lived in Mesopotamia 4,000 to 5,000 years ago were the first to develop a predecessor to concept of zero in their number system. The Sumerian number system was positional i.e. the value of a symbol depended on its position relative to other symbols and Kaplan suggests that a pair of angled wedges indicated an empty number column.

Sumerian Writing (Zero Sadly Not Pictured)

Charles Seife, author of ‘Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea’ disagrees but both accept that the idea of zero as a placeholder was known to the Babylonians by around 300 B.C However, a placeholder is not a numeral in itself – the concept of the numeral of zero was still a long time coming at that point.

Some ancient cultures never even reached the proper concept of zero as a placeholder – the ancient Greeks only had vague references late on in their history and incredibly the Romans had no concept at all.

The concept of zero worked its way through India into Northern Africa and eventually into Europe via the Silk Road trade route, along with with the Hindu-Arabic number system which was previously unknown in Europe. By now Indian scholars had developed a sophisticated number system incorporating algebra and much more.

The main proponent for the introduction of the concept of zero into the European mainstream was a young Italian fellow called Leonard of Pisa who grew up in Africa where he encountered this system and recognised its importance. You may know him better as Fibonacci of the Fibonacci Number Sequence.

He brought many other mathematical concepts back to Italy and published works on decimals, geometry, irrational numbers and more. He also introduced to Europe the concept of a symbol or numeral for zero which he named called ‘zephirum’ after the Arabic ‘ṣifr’.

The rest as they say is history, the Hindu-Arabic number system eventually gained widespread popularity as it was so much more practical to use for trade, commerce etc. This is despite religious suspicion, bureaucratic pedantry and Islamophobic aversion to use of the system in Christian Europe for a few centuries at least as its use was banned in Florence in 1299!

Florence. Courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio

We must not forget that we owe the original the original concept of zero as a symbol to India and while the Euro-centricity and arrogance of Western scholars ignored this for a long time, it is long overdue that the mathematical achievements of the sub-continent should be recognized.

After all, vast advancements in mathematics from Cartesian coordinates to the concept of infinity and so much more could not have been made without zero. Consequently, without the resulting later concept of binary, the modern digital communication and technology we enjoy today would be impossible.

Marcus du Sautoy says "Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world… We now know that it was as early as the third century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world.”

We are pleased that the true history of this crucial concept is now being brought to light and we encourage you to learn more, and ponder on what what the world would have been like without such a monumental breakthrough.