There are two numeric alphabets in use today with certain variations:
The eastern numerals used in the Arab world and many other countries outside it,
and the western numerals used in some North African Arab states, Europe, the USA
and many other countries. The western numerals are a relatively new introduction
most probably from Arab Al Andalus in the 12th of 13th century, and in a very
limited scale. The eastern numerals are very ancient; they are the master set
from which the western numerals were adapted.
Both sets of numerals are pictograms of formations of hand and fingers.
This means that when we write numerals, we are drawing miniature shapes of
actual numeric hand and finger formations. Long before paper was invented
traders and ordinary individuals used hand and finger formations to calculate
and convey numbers in open markets.
The story of how Europe came to use the Arabic cipher system and its
numerals is told in chapters 15 and 16 of the Origin of Arabic Numerals.
Ignoring the narrative that the Arabic numeric system was brought from al-
Andalus in the 10th century by Gerbert d'Aurillac (946-1003) leaves history with
a disappointing account of the wide spread diffusion of the Arabic system in
Europe some 400 hundred years later than claimed and 650 years after the
publication of al-Khwarizmi’s al-Jabr Wa Muqabalah. A realistic account of the
European history of mathematics, therefore, would suggest that the Arabic
numeral system was used in isolated cases but “outside Italy most merchants
continued to keep their accounts in Roman numerals till about 1550, and
monasteries and colleges till about 1650… Arabic numerals are used in the
pagination of some books printed in Venice in 1471 and 1482. No instance of a
date or number being written in Arabic numerals is known to occur in any English
parish register or the court roll of any English manor before the sixteenth
century; but in the rent-roll of the St Andrews Chapter, Scotland, the Arabic
numerals were used in 1490.”*
Again, the student of history should be careful not to confuse the
occurrence of a few exploratory Arabic numerals in a few records with the
‘diffusion’ of the Arabic numeral system. Some scholars described in some
histories as among the first to work with the Arabic system do not appear to
have succeeded in explaining how the system works. It was necessary, therefore,
to prepare for the introduction of the system with explanatory notes of some of
its most important functions.
This was done not by scholars, as often claimed, but by professional
publishers of almanacs and calendars because they needed to sell their products.
Almanacs and calendars enjoyed wide circulation in the 15th century. Some were
composed with special reference to ecclesiastical events and contained dates for
different festivals and fasts of the church for a period of some seven or eight
years in advance, as well as notes on church rituals. The demand for such
publications was significant, as “nearly every monastery and church of any
pretensions possessed one of these. Others were written especially for the use
of astrologers and physicians, and some of them contained notes on various
scientific subjects, especially medicine and astronomy.”
Those almanacs and calendars needed to use Arabic numerals intensively.
Their contribution to the diffusion of the Arabic system cannot be
overestimated. Another important category of professionals who helped to diffuse
the Arabic system were the makers of instruments and gadgets. The dramatic
increase in the number of ships needed to serve the New World and the
accelerated international trade created a huge demand for navigational
instruments. Likewise, the prosperity brought by trade created a demand for
clocks and elaborate novelties that required numbers. The choices faced by these
artisans were limited due to the lack of a standardised European use of numeric
systems and measurements, and many had to experiment with different systems
until the marketplace forced the use of the Arabic numeric system. Whether in
accounting, publishing, manufacturing and other crafts, the marketplace in the
late 15th century spearheaded the diffusion of the Arabic numeric system among
the rest of society rather than scholars and historians.
It may sound incredible but it does appear that it took most Europeans
more than 150 years to accept the concept of the zero. The controversy
surrounding the zero persisted for another three hundred years. “From the middle
of the fourteenth century down to the fifteenth, when the Arabic system began to
be generally adopted in calendars (long before its application to common
accounts in bookkeeping), explanations clearly pointing out the power of place,
which gives to the digit its decimal value, were frequently attached to Latin
To the rescue rushed the Flemish Simon Stevinus with a book written in
his native tongue and translated into French by Simon of Bruges who adopted the
word disme as the devise or representation of the new system of arithmetic. The
English translation was done by Richard Norton (1606). It took another book,
Clavis Mathematica, for the famous Dr. Peacock to declare that from this date
(1631) onwards the Arabic numeral system became fully established in Europe.
This website contains a substantial number of tables, charts and
illustrations supporting the topics discussed in the book. A large number of
images of hand and finger numeral formations using both the eastern and western
numeral pictograms are also included. A number of PowerPoint and PDF
presentations covering various aspects of Arabic cipher system and its numerals
are now available for downloading free of charge.
*Please refer to the book for footnotes. A bibliography of the book is