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History of mathematics

An old wooden abacusAn old wooden abacusMathematics originally developed from a need to measure and count. Early advances were made in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, the Greeks and the Islamic world. Trading, observation of the stars and planets , and the desire to understand nature all helped to drive the study of mathematics over the years. The first counting was done with notches on bones or wood, with one symbol for each number. The earliest counting device was the abacus, a counting frame along which beads are moved to make calculations. It dates from 2700–2300 BC in Sumeria, modern Iraq.

Babylonian clay tablet with calculationBabylonian clay tablet with calculation

Babylonian maths

The first advances in mathematics were made by the people of Mesopotamia from about 2700 BC to the fall of Babylon in 539 BC. The Babylonian number system was based on the number 60. This is why we have 60 seconds in a minute and 360 degrees in a circle. No one is sure why they used this number, other than the fact it very usefully can be divided by 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 and 12. One idea is that they counted to 12 on one hand by pointing the thumb to each of the three bones on the four fingers in turn, allowing them to count in groups of twelve. Each group was counted on the thumb and four fingers of the other hand, and 12 x 5 is 60. 

The word mathematics comes from the Greek word mathema, meaning "what is learnt".

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