Who discovered zero?
Discovery of Zero
We can’t say for sure who discovered zero before anyone else. But the oldest records of its use are found in the ruins of Babylonia in circa 300 BC. The Babylonians were the first to invent a place hold number system, that is the use of a number to “compress” and cycle figures for easier counting and representation. While our modern system uses 10 as its place value, they used the number 60. This is the sexigesimal system used when counting minutes and seconds today.
Babylonian Use of Zero
The Babylonians, however, only used zero as a place holder. In other words, it was to clarify representation of numbers in written form. The Babylonians used cuneiform symbols called wedges and crescents to stand for numbers. To avoid confusion with large numbers (for example, 40 X 40 + 1 versus 40 + 1), they invented a zero symbol to mean a blank, a break. But they did not quite think of zero as a number.
Zero and the Mayan Calendar
At about 400 AD, the Mayans also discovered zero on their own, all the way in Central America. These Native Americans are famous for their complex and highly accurate calendars. To work out their calendar systems accurately, they also used zero as a placeholder.
The Greeks and Zero
The Greeks also knew about zero. But philosophical as they were, they couldn’t just accept it. After all, how can “nothing” be written down as “something”? This led to many philosophical debates about the “void” and “emptiness” one sees even in metaphysics around the world.
Indian Math and Zero
India is believed to be the third civilization to independently discover zero. Its discovery is dated at around 500 AD. Although some scholars dispute this and say the knowledge was borrowed from Babylonia. The discovery of the number of “the void” was then picked up by the Cambodians, Chinese and the Arabs. The concept of zero as a number did not make it to Europe until 1100 AD.
The Indian mathematicians had a clever way of recording numbers. They associated a given word or idea with that number, and wrote that word down. The number zero can be written as “void,” “space” or “sky.” An actual symbol for zero did not appear until circa 600 AD.
The Chinese were astute mathematicians and astronomers, much like the Indians and Mayans and other ancient peoples. But they owe their knowledge of zero to a Buddhist astronomer from India. And in fact, the Indians also shared their knowledge with the Arabs, who in turn passed it on to Europeans in the 12th century. Today the modern number system, including a zero, is called Arab numerals.