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The man behind our numbers

Created date

May 24th, 2017
As a youngster, Fibonacci traveled with his father to African trading posts, where he met foreign merchants who introduced him to Hindu-Arabic numerals.

As a youngster, Fibonacci traveled with his father to African trading posts, where he met foreign merchants who introduced him to Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Today, few people know his name; however, his contribution to modern civilization is evident in virtually every aspect of daily life. Next to the wheel, it is quite possibly the most important instance of foresight and innovation in human history.

Born in 1175 in Pisa, Italy, Leonardo Bonacci was the son of wealthy and powerful merchant Guglielmo Bonacci, who was also the consul of Pisa and the director of an important North African trading post. 

The young Bonacci was extremely close to his father—so much, in fact, that he went by the life-long nickname Fibonacci, meaning “the son of Bonacci.” 

Throughout his youth, Fibonacci frequently accompanied his father on trips to Africa and along the Mediterranean coast. During these travels, he encountered a wide variety of foreign merchants.

Hindu-Arabic numerals

An inquisitive, brilliant mind, he was fascinated by what these businessmen had to teach him—a numeric system other than the traditional Roman numerals used throughout Europe and most other regions of Western civilization.

Known as Hindu-Arabic numerals, this system is composed of a set of ten numeric symbols, along with a “positional decimal” system that allows for fine numerical adjustments (ones, tens, and hundreds places). Devised between the second and third centuries by Indian mathematicians, it was later adopted by the Arabs in the 800s, and used within Indian- and Arabic-controlled regions ever since.

Several hundred years later, Fibonacci immediately recognized the advantages of the alternative system. When he was just in his 20s, he set about advocating the adoption of Hindu-Arabic numerals in Europe.

In 1202, he completed his seminal work, Liber Abaci (roughly translating to Book of Arithmetic or Calculation). Among the numerous topics covered, the book first offered a detailed introduction of the number system, followed by 14 chapters outlining its benefits and applications.

In addition to a tutorial on converting Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic, he explained the technique and usage of decimals, which made numbers more precise and simpler to understand, thus expanding the ways in which people could use them.

More significant, though, was Fibonacci’s demonstration of how Hindu-Arabic numerals made highly important tasks faster and easier.

Throughout the book, he showed how the new system vastly improved critical functions, such as commercial bookkeeping, the computation of interest, monetary exchange, and the conversion and calculation of weights and measures. All of this, according to Fibonacci, became more efficient and effective if you used a series of 10 digits: 0 through 9.

As he, himself, stated, “With these nine figures, and with the sign 0, which the Arabs call zephir, any number whatsoever [can be] written.” In other words, without Hindu-Arabic numerals, modern mathematics would be impossible.

Slow acceptance and adoption

Of course, this was just the beginning. Despite Fibonacci’s efforts and the obvious accuracy of his assertions, it would be another two centuries before Hindu-Arabic numerals saw widespread acceptance in the Western world.

Not until the advent and adoption of the printing press in the mid 1400s did the new number system become a standard in Europe. 

In the meantime, Fibonacci put these numbers to good use, developing what we refer to as the Fibonacci Sequence. In this series, every number after the first two digits is the sum of the two preceding ones (e.g., 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144, etc.).

Mathematicians now apply this code as a key element in such practices as “planning poker,” which software designers often use to estimate developmental goals. Indeed, this sequence is even the basis of a geometric spiral employed by carpenters to build elaborate tree houses.

Still, Fibonacci’s greatest contribution to mankind resides in the broad use of Hindu-Arabic numerals. Because of his vision and forward thinking, later mathematicians like Isaac Newton were able to create fields such as calculus, which thus led to everything from advanced physics to flight, telephones, binary code and computers, the Internet, medical advances—in fact, too many developments to mention.

So the next time you dial a number on your smart phone, look up a recipe on the Web, or withdraw some quick cash from an ATM, remember the largely forgotten Italian mathematician who made it all possible. 

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