A Fraction of Math History

Nov 11, 2020 | Stone Oak

The history of fractions dates back to one of the oldest civilizations, the Egyptians. Although fractions have been a part of our history for a long time, fractions were not considered numbers. Fractions were just used as a way to compare whole numbers with each other. It is pretty interesting to think that these numbers were not always considered actual numbers!


We humans have always shared with one another. When early cultures shared their food and water or wanted to divide their land in ways that were fair and equal, fractions gradually emerged as symbols for these fair share situations. 


From as early as 1800 BC, the Egyptians were writing fractions, they used what we call unit fractions. A unit fraction has 1 as its numerator (top number). They put a mouth picture (which meant part) above a number to make it into a unit fraction. 


The Sumerians and early Babylonians also invented a number system of fractions based on 60 that we still use 4,000 years later. Our days have 60-minute hours and 60-second minutes and our circles encompass 360 degrees. 


It wasn’t until the 12th century that the common fractions, with the bar notation, that we use today were invented. Even then these fractions weren’t widely used until the Renaissance period only 500 years ago.


The history of fractions is everywhere around us! Today when children look at an analog clock, they see the remnants of an ancient system which allows them to break one hour into a whole range of fraction parts, not just halves and quarters. 

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