The concept of absence or void of a thing has not been unknown to mankind, but the mathematical depiction of this in terms of the digit “zero” is a relatively newer invention. The concept of zero was only developed in the fifth century A.D., and before that the mathematicians struggled to perform even the simplest arithmetic calculations.
Early history: Angled wedges
History has it that zero was invented independently by three civilisations, the Babylonians, the Mayans and the Indians. The Babylonians extracted their mathematics from the Sumerians, who are regarded as the first people in the world to develop a counting system.
The Sumerian system developed 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, where the value of a symbol depended on its relative position to the other symbols. A zero may have been signified by a pair of angled wedges, depicting an empty number column.
The Sumerians’ system then was passed along to the Akkadian Empire and then to the Babylonians around 300 B.C. By analysing ancient artefacts, the scholars agree that this civilisation had invented a method to tell ten from 100. At first, the Babylonians left a space in place of zero, but when that became confusing, then they invented a symbol — double angled wedges — to represent the empty column.
Zero in the Americas
The Mayans also independently invented the concept six hundred years later and about 12,000 miles away from the Babylon. The Mayans used this zero as a placeholder around A.D. 350 and created their unique and elaborate calendar systems based on it. As described by a historian Kaplan, the Mayan invention of zero was the
“most striking example of the zero being devised wholly from scratch.”
India: Where Zero became a number
Up till now, zero was not a number, but just an abstract concept or a symbol. The concept of zero as a numerical digit first came in India around A.D. 458. Indians were the first to use it in mathematical equations. And even before that, the concept was spelt out in poetry or chants as “void,” “sky” or “space.”
In 628, Brahmagupta, who was a Hindu astronomer and mathematician, developed a symbol for zero signified by a dot underneath numbers. He is also credited to have developed mathematical operations using zero, such as reaching zero through addition and subtraction, and how to use the number in equations.
Zero getting its modern shape
After this advance, the concept was taken up by China and the Middle East. According to Nils-Bertil Wallin from YaleGlobal, zero reached the centre of educational advancement in the golden period of Muslims, Baghdad by A.D. 773, and became part of the Arabic number system.
Then a Persian mathematician, going by the name of Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi, gave the number its current shaped of a little circle, which in Arabic was called “sifr,” or “empty.” Al-Khowarizmi then built on this to invent algebra in the ninth century, and also developed quicker methods for performing multiplication and division of numbers known as algorithms which infact is a corruption of his name.