100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Zero
Year of Invention: 810

What Is It? The number for “none of the thing being counted,” the number that
links positive and negative number lines.

Who Invented It? Muhammad ibn Al-Khwarizmi (in Baghdad, Iraq)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Numbers and math form the essential language of science. Numbers are also the only universal language, used by and understood by all cultures and countries on Earth. The Arabic number system of 10 digits and the corresponding methods for writing numbers and for doing basic math and algebra have made modern science and commerce possible.

Zero was the last cog in that system to exist, invented more than 300 years after the rest of the Arabic number system was in use. No one had thought of having a number for zero. Not the Greeks. Not the Egyptians, not the Romans, not Aristotle or Euclid or Archimedes or Pythagoras. The invention of zero as a real and working number completed the Arabic number system. Zero was the invention that made complex math possible.

Today there is scarcely any aspect of life that does not depend on our ability to handle numbers effectively and accurately. Computers, building construction, directions, making change, and telling time all depend on using numbers and math. They depend on the number zero.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Hindu mathematicians in India around A.D. 500 created the numerals 1 through 9 that we now use. They also created the system for writing numbers and for adding and multiplying that we still use. In so doing, they found that they needed to invent a space holder to mark a place where there was no number. They created sifr (0), meaning “the absence of a number” as a placeholder. Now everyone could tell that 570 was different from 507 or 5700 or 5007.

Sifr was not a number, just a placeholder to keep the real numbers in the proper columns. Around A.D. 750, this number and math system (the most advanced math system on Earth) migrated west into the Arab world.

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