Copyright © 2000 Herbert J. Bernstein
yaya@bernstein-plus-sons.com
People have used representations for numbers at least since the beginnings of recorded history. For a discussion on this history see:
Number are a powerful, abstract concept. The number "3" represents what is common in a pile of 3 rocks, a gathering of 3 people, a set of three marks on a wall. It is the "cardinality" of each of these sets.
We could use any set of 3 objects as a representative of the idea of the number 3. For example, the Romans used, III, three I's in a row to represent three. They used a simple set of symbols for 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000:
Roman Numeral | Arabic Number |
---|---|
I | 1 |
V | 5 |
X | 10 |
L | 50 |
C | 100 |
D | 500 |
M | 1000 |
These symbols were combined by addition and subtraction. When a smaller symbol was to the left of a larger symbol, it was subtracted. The rules for permitted combinations are complex. See Paul Lewis' explanation at http://www.wilkiecollins.demon.co.uk/roman/front.htm. When a smaller symbol was to the right of a larger symbol, it was added. For numbers smaller than 1000, no more than three of one symbol were placed together. Since there is no Roman numeral for a number larger than 1000, at first this rule was relaxed for number larger than 1000. Eventually symbols for larger number were created by placing a line over the existing symbols, multiplying them by 1000. For the smaller number, however, except for the sign, each Roman numeral had the same meaning no matter where it was placed.
Note that there is no symbol for a set with no objects.
Roman Numerals | Arabic Number | Roman Numerals | Arabic Number | Roman Numerals | Arabic Number | Roman Numerals | Arabic Number |
---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
I | 1 | XI | 11 | XXI | 21 | XXXI | 31 |
II | 2 | XII | 12 | XXII | 22 | XXXII | 32 |
III | 3 | XIII | 13 | XXIII | 23 | XXXIII | 33 |
IV | 4 | XIV | 14 | XXIV | 24 | XXXIV | 34 |
V | 5 | XV | 15 | XXV | 25 | XXXV | 35 |
VI | 6 | XVI | 16 | XXVI | 26 | XXXVI | 36 |
VII | 7 | XVII | 17 | XXVII | 27 | XXXVII | 37 |
VIII | 8 | XVIII | 18 | XXVIII | 28 | XXXVIII | 38 |
IX | 9 | XIX | 19 | XXIX | 29 | XXXIX | 39 |
X | 10 | XX | 20 | XXX | 30 | XL | 40 |
Arabic numerals (so called because they were developed by Arab mathematicians, working from a decimal system which may have come from India) greatly simplified the representation of numbers. There were two major differences between the use of Arabic numberals and the use of Roman numerals: the inclusion of a symbol for a set with no object and the use of the same simple set of 10 symbols for different numeric values depending on their position.
The forms of the numbers have changed over time. We now use 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. When writing in Arabic, words go from right to left. Therefore we start our number on the right with the units digit, and work to the left with increasing powers of ten. It is the zero which makes it possible to do this. If we have the number, CCXIII in Roman numerals, we have no trouble writing 213 in Arabic numerals, but if we had CCIII and did not have a zero, we would have 23, which would not be what we intend. Indeed, an early form of Arabic numerals would have written this is 2.3, with the period simply holding the place of the missing number, as if it were a rod in an abacus.
We could use just two digits, 0 and 1. This would give us a binary number system. This is a very natural numbering system for a machine made up of switches that simply turn on and off. A numeric position that can hold just one binary digit is called a bit.
We could group three bits together. This would allow us to run through the following numbers:
Bit 2 | Bit 1 | Bit 0 | Decimal Value |
---|---|---|---|
0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |
0 | 0 | 1 | 1 |
0 | 1 | 0 | 2 |
0 | 1 | 1 | 3 |
1 | 0 | 0 | 4 |
1 | 0 | 1 | 5 |
1 | 1 | 0 | 6 |
1 | 1 | 1 | 7 |
This grouping of three bits, allowing us to work with digits 0 through 7, is called octal notation. The number 8 is called the radix of octal notation and we say that we are writing numbers base-8.
We also could group four bits together. This would allow us to run through sixteen digits, but we need to invent characters to use for the digits past 9. The convention for this hexadecimal notation and for all the numbering systems with radixes 11 through 36 is to use the letters from the corresponding portion of the alpahbet.
Bit 3 | Bit 2 | Bit 1 | Bit 0 | Decimal Value | Hexadecimal Digit |
---|---|---|---|---|---|
0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |
0 | 0 | 0 | 1 | 1 | 1 |
0 | 0 | 1 | 0 | 2 | 2 |
0 | 0 | 1 | 1 | 3 | 3 |
0 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 4 | 4 |
0 | 1 | 0 | 1 | 5 | 5 |
0 | 1 | 1 | 0 | 6 | 6 |
0 | 1 | 1 | 1 | 7 | 7 |
1 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 8 | 8 |
1 | 0 | 0 | 1 | 9 | 9 |
1 | 0 | 1 | 0 | 10 | A |
1 | 0 | 1 | 1 | 11 | B |
1 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 12 | C |
1 | 1 | 0 | 1 | 13 | D |
1 | 1 | 1 | 0 | 14 | E |
1 | 1 | 1 | 1 | 15 | F |
A numeric position that can hold just one hexadecimal digit is called a nibble.
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Page last updated 11 September 2003
Herbert J. Bernstein