Although the great practical invention of zero is attributed to Hindus, partial or limited developments of the concept of zero are evident in several other numbering systems at least as old as, if not more, the Hindu system. But the real effect of any of these earlier steps on the full development of the concept of zero - if they had any effect at all - is unclear.

The Babylonian sexagesimal system used in mathematical and astronomical texts was essentially a positional system, even though the concept of zero was not fully developed. Many of the Babylonian tables only indicate a space between symbol groups when a particular power of 60 was not needed, so the exact powers of 60 involved must be determined, in part, by context. In the later Babylonian tablets (those of the last three centuries BC) a symbol was used to indicate an absent power, but this only occurred within a numerical group and not at the end. When the Greeks continued to develop astronomical tables, they explicitly chose the Babylonian sexagesimal system to express their fractions, not the Egyptian system of unit fractions. The repeated subdivision of one part into 60 smaller parts required that sometimes “not a part” of a unit be involved, so that Ptolemy's tables in Almagest (c.150 AD) include the symbol or 0 to indicate this. Much later, around the year 500, Greek texts used the micron, which is the first letter of the Greek word. *dare* ("nothing"). Previously, the omicron was restricted to representing the number 70, its value in the regular alphabetic arrangement.

Perhaps the oldest systematic use of a symbol for zero in a relative value system is found in the maths of the Central and South American Maya. The Mayan symbol of zero was used to indicate the absence of any units of the various orders of the base system. Twenty modified. This system was much more likely to be used to record time in calendars than for computational purposes.

It is possible that the earliest Hindu symbol for zero was the bold point, which appears in the Bakhshali manuscript, whose content perhaps dates back to the third or fourth century AD, although some historians find it until the twelfth century. Any association of the small circle of the more common Hindus with the symbol used by the Greeks would be merely conjecture.

As the earliest form of the Hindu symbol was commonly used in inscriptions and manuscripts to mark a blank space, it was called *sunya*, meaning "gap" or "void". That word came into Arabic as *sifr*, which means "vague". It was transliterated into Latin as *zephirum* or *zephyrum* around 1200, keeping its sound but not its sense. Successive changes of these forms, including *zeuero*, *zepiro* and *cipher*, took our words "cipher" and "zero". The double meaning of the word "cipher" today - it can refer either to the zero symbol or to any digit - did not occur in the original Hindu.

Source. Mathematics History Topics for Classroom Use; Numbers and Numerals, by Bernard GUNDLACH.

Next: Origin of the Derivative Concept of a Function <