A for Effort
Many many years ago, a Roman civil engineer who was a high official in Alexandria, was approached by a young Arabian
mathematician. He had an idea which the easterner believed
would be very valuable to the Roman government in its
building, navigating, tax collecting, and census taking.
As the arab explained in his manuscript, he had found a
new method of number notation, borrowed from Hindu
The Roman official presumably studied the manuscript
given by the easterner, and then sent this reply:
Your courier brought me your proposal at a time when my
duties were light, so fortunately I have had a chance to
study it carefully. I am glad to submit my comments.
This new notation may have some merit, but it is unlikely
that it will ever be of any real use to the Roman Empire.
even if authorized by the Emperor himself, it would be
vigorously opposed by the people, mostly because those who
would use it do not sympathize with your radical ideas.
Our scribes complain that there are too many letters
as it stands, and you wish to add X additional symbols,
which you call 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0.
It is clear that your "1" mark is the same as our I, but
since ours is already established, why use yours?
Then you explain the circle mark. Beyond being confusable
with the letter O, you state that it signifies an empty
column, or nothing. If it means nothing, why write it?
I see no useful purpose in it, but to be sure, I consulted
an assistant, who drew the same conclusion.
You say the number "01" means the same as "1". This is
a terrible ambiguity, and could not be used in any legal
document. Then it gets worse: you indicate "10" is X, not I, and that "100" is C, not X or I. Had my duties not been
light, I would have stopped here: Examiners do not accept
proposals with such obvious errors.
As you continue, you assert that enumeration is much
simpler than our system. I disagree: to count to V,
you require V distinct symbols; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. We
require just II; I, II, III, IV, V.
Counting to twenty requres X symbols in your system,
ours only III:
I - 1
II - 2
III - 3
IV - 4
V - 5
VI - 6
VII - 7
VIII - 8
IX - 9
X - 01 (or is it 10?)
XI - 11
XII - 21
XIII - 31
XIV - 41
XV - 51
XVI - 61
XVII - 71
XVIII - 81
XIX - 91
XX - 02 (or 20?)
Note the suggestivity of V being half of X, and the
obviousness of XX being twice X. these pictorial
distinctions are neccesary for our lower classes, for,
as the slaves say, 'a picture is a thousand words'.
When you attempt to manipulate your numbers, your explanations are particularly obscure. you show 2
The first example correctly shows that II + III = V.
The second, however, states that IX + VI = V!
May I suggest that you forget this kludge of a proposal,
return to your sand piles, and leave reckoning of numbers
to tax collectors and census takers. They can give these
matters more thought than you or I.