Zero – the figure or symbol 0, which in the Arabic notation for numbers stands for the absence of quantity

Zero describes nothing, like how much extra money I have. The number zero as we know it arrived in the West circa 1200, most famously delivered by Italian mathematician Fibonacci[1] (aka Leonardo of Pisa), who brought it, along with the rest of the Arabic numerals, back from his travels to North Africa.

Yes, that’s what I’m saying, there have not always been zeros. How could the world operate without the concept of zero? It functions as a placeholder to correctly state an amount. Is it 25, 250, 25,000, 250,000? Could you tell without the zeroes? And if you accidentally erased one zero, would that make a big difference?

The number system (Arabic) that we use today came from India. An Indian named Brahmagupta[2] was the first to use zero in arithmetic operations. This happened about 650 AD. Brahmagupta’s writings along with spices and other items were carried by Arabian traders to other parts of the world.

The zero reached Baghdad (today in Iraq) by 773 AD and Middle Eastern mathematicians would base their number systems on the Indian system. In the 800s AD, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizimi[3] was the first to work on equations that would equal zero. He called the zero, “sifr,” which means empty. And by 879 AD the zero was written as “0.”

It would take a few centuries before the concept of zero would spread to Europe. In 1202 AD, the aforementioned Italian mathematician named Fibonacci began to influence Italian merchants and German bankers to use the zero. These businessmen came to realize that using zero would show if their accounts were balanced.

The next European to promote the use of zero was Frenchman, Rene Descartes[4] who used 0,0 as the graph coordinates for X and Y axes in the middle of the 1600s. Then British mathematician, Isaac Newton, and German mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz, made further advances in the last of the 1600s. They used zero in a kind of mathematics called calculus.
Without calculus, we would not have physics and engineering.

Without a zero, how did previous civilizations calculate numbers? In China, they would leave a blank space to show nothing was there.

The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar developed in south-central Mexico and Central America required the use of zero as a placeholder within its base-20 positional numeral system. Zero would be part of Maya numerals with a different, empty tortoise-like “shell shape” used for many depictions of the “zero” numeral.

Both of these books were suggested by Scientific American Magazine

Some reading on the subject of nothing is Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (Viking, 2000) and  The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan (Oxford University Press, 2000).

  1. Fibonacci is also known as Leonardo Bonacci, Leonardo of Pisa, or Leonardo Bigollo Pisano (‘Leonardo the Traveller from Pisa’), was an Italian mathematician from the Republic of Pisa, considered to be “the most talented Western mathematician of the Middle Ages”.
  2. Brahmagupta was the first to give rules to compute with zero. The texts composed by Brahmagupta were in elliptic verse in Sanskrit, as was common practice in Indian mathematics. As no proofs are given, it is not known how Brahmagupta’s results were derived.
  3. Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizimi contributions to mathematics, geography, astronomy, and cartography established the basis for innovation in algebra and trigonometry. His systematic approach to solving linear and quadratic equations led to algebra, a word derived from the title of his book on the subject, “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”
  4. One of Rene Descartes’s most enduring legacies was his development of Cartesian or analytic geometry, which uses algebra to describe geometry. Descartes “invented the convention of representing unknowns in equations by x, y, and z, and knowns by a, b, and c”. He also “pioneered the standard notation” that uses superscripts to show the powers or exponents. He was the first to assign a fundamental place for algebra in the system of knowledge, using it as a method to automate or mechanize reasoning, particularly about abstract, unknown quantities.


Scientific American
Arizona Geographic Alliance
Washington State University

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: