In schools we start learning mathematics with learning what numbers are. Unfortunately numbers are taken for granted and being overlooked just because it starts in the elementary school. The truth is this part of mathematics is a joint work of countless civilizations that lasted thousands of years. Although, categorizing and defining all those information were done only in the near past. This means that things we learn in the first few years of school have so much more depth than we think they have.
Especially fractions (or rational numbers) weren’t used in Europe in the sense we understand them today until the 17th century. In fact for a long time people thought of fractions not as numbers but as two numbers being divided to one another.
Ancient Egyptians were one of the first known civilizations that used fractions. They created one of the most important and oldest documents in the history of civilizations using papyrus trees. Around 4000 years ago they started writing valuable information on papyrus leafs. Rhind papyrus is one of those documents. It is believed to be written around 1800 BC. Thanks to Rhind, we can understand how ancient Egyptians used fractions.
It is uncanny how commonly they used fractions in Rhind. Although they were obsessed with unit fractions as they found ways to describe every fraction with them.
Unit Fraction: Fractions that have 1 on their numerators.
In the ancient Egypt they used a shaped that looks like an open mouth (or an eye). This shape was the notation for the unit fraction. Denominator of the fraction would be placed under the mouth.
Table of 2/n
Inside Rhind there is a method for describing fractions in the form of 2/n (when n is odd) with two unit fractions. Table starts with 2/3 and ends with 2/101. In the papyrus it says that 2/3 is equal to ½ + 1/6. For the rest of the papyrus a formula was given in order to describe fractions in the form of 2/3k: It is 1/2k + 1/6k.
Let’s try it for 2/9. 9 is 3k, hence k=3. This gives 2/9 = 1/6 + 1/18. Ingenious, isn’t it?
Next number on the table is 2/5 = 1/3 + 1/15. This is also a general formula just like the previous one. Any fraction in the form of 2/5k can be shown as 1/3k + 1/15k.
Besides ancient Egyptians, Babylonians used fractions too. But their choice of symbols was so confusing, it is impossible to understand which number is written. You could only check the rest of the calculation (if there is any) and guess which number is being used.
In the Babylon civilization number system has base 60. The one on the left is 12, other one is 15. But they can also mean 12+(15/60) too. Lack of symbol for fractions caused a lot of problems in this civilization.
Around 1500 years ago Indian mathematicians were shining. They found the number system we use today and even the number zero was invented (or discovered). Their brilliance was key for fractions too as they showed fractions one under the other. Muslims were the ones who thought of putting the fraction line between numbers.
In the end we owe our modern notation to Indian and Muslim mathematicians.
The way 7/15 was shown in the old Indian symbols.
Try to find answers to following questions about the Rhind:
- Why did they only consider odd numbers in the denominator of the fractions?
- Find 2/7 and 2/11 using their methods.
- What happens after 11?
- Try to come up with a general formula for 3, 5, 7 and 11.
M. Serkan Kalaycıoğlu