As ancient numerical systems came to be and evolved over time, so did the number zero. Zero did not seem to be an obvious start to the natural numbers to the mathematicians who pioneered the different number systems of the past. Having a symbol that meant basically “nothing” appeared in a few cultures but usually long after the initial creation of the culture’s number system and sometimes was a controversial idea. (Textbook)
The delay in adding zero to the number systems was most likely because in most cultures the earliest number systems were additive. This meant that they had symbols to represent certain numbers and merely added them all together to achieve the desired number. The symbols could be arranged in any order. This type of system did not require a symbol to represent zero in order to make any other numbers. Such systems are limited and eventually evolved into systems where the position of the symbols in a number changed its meaning. These positional systems are part of what created a need for a “place holder” symbol, which later would become the number zero. (Textbook, scientificamerican.com article)
For example, the Egyptian’s Hieroglyphic number system was additive and had no zero symbol. It dated back as far is 3500 B.C. and is one of the earliest known number systems. This system used pictures to represent the numbers 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc. Since order did not matter, the Egyptians did not even need a symbol to represent an empty space. Eventually the Egyptians created their hieratic system. The Hieratic was a more difficult system with more symbols (1-10, 20, 30, etc.) but still did not employ a symbol to represent zero as a number. There is evidence that Egyptians used their symbol for “good” or “complete” on accounting sheets to show a zero balance in some instances. However, it is many centuries later that a symbol for the number zero appears in Egypt as a number and not just in accounting to show an empty balance. (Ghevergehese, textbook)
Sometime after the Egyptians developed their first number system, the Babylonians created their cuneiform system. This system was partially positional. They still used a limited number of symbols and in each position still had to add the symbols up to 60 (it was a base 60 system). Even though the system was partially positional, it is apparent that a symbol to represent an “empty” space was necessary to prevent ambiguity. The Babylonians started off by leaving a blank space. Using a blank space could lead to problems since the Babylonians wrote on clay tablets and the spacing was not always perfect. The numbers could still be hard to distinguish. This was eventually replaced by a symbol. However, the symbol was used merely to indicated a vacant position and never alone as the number zero. It was also never used as the last symbol in the number and therefore numbers could still be misinterpreted. (Textbook)
The Chinese counting rod system was similar to the...