The Universal History of Numbers by Georges Ifrah
From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer

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A riveting history of counting and calculating from the time of the cave dwellers to the late twentieth century, The Universal History of Numbers is the first complete account of the invention and evolution of numbers the world over. As different cultures around the globe struggled with problems of harvests, constructing buildings, educating their citizens, and exploring the wonders of science, each civilization created its own unique and wonderful mathematical system.

Dubbed the "Indiana Jones of numbers," Georges Ifrah traveled all over the world for ten years to uncover the little-known details of this amazing story. From India to China, and from Egypt to Chile, Ifrah talked to mathematicians, historians, archaeologists, and philosophers. He deciphered ancient writing on crumbling walls; scrutinized stones, tools, cylinders, and cones; and examined carved bones, elaborately knotted counting strings, and X-rays of the contents of never-opened ancient clay accounting balls. Conveying all the excitement and joy of the process of discovery, Ifrah writes in a delightful storytelling style, recounting a plethora of intriguing and amusing anecdotes along the way.

From the stories of the various ingenious ways in which different early cultures used their bodies to count and perfected the use of the first calculating machine-the hand-to the invention of different styles of tally sticks, up through the creation of alphabetic numbers, the Greek and Roman numeric systems, and the birth of modern numerals in ancient India, we are taken on a marvelous journey through humankind's grand intellectual epic.

We meet those who only count to four-anything more is "a lot"; discover the first uses of counting fingers and toes; learn of the amazing ability of abacus users to calculate with brilliant efficiency; and ponder the intriguing question: How did many cultures manage to calculate for all those centuries without a zero? Exploring the many ways civilizations developed and changed their mathematical systems, Ifrah imparts a unique insight into the nature of human thought-and into the ways our understanding of numbers and how they shape our lives has slowly changed and grown over thousands of years.

In this illuminating and entertaining work, you'll learn about:The earliest calculating machine--the handTally sticks--accounting for beginnersHow the Sumerians did their sumsGreek and Roman numeralsThe invention of alphabetic numeralsThe achievements of the Mayan civilizationIndia and the birth of modern numbersIndo-Arabic numerals and how they reached the WestThe final stage of numerical notation

Praise for The Universal History of Numbers

"Let us start the year with a bang. Georges Ifrah is the man. This book, quite simply, rules. . . . It is outstanding, and not least because it has been written from first principles, for people like you and me, curious but by no means expert . . . a mind-boggling and enriching experience."-The Guardian

"Pursuing the invention of numbers across civilizations, Georges Ifrah has written the grand story of human ingenuity. . . . His amazing undertaking, describing humankind's relationship with numbers from Paleolithic times to the computer age, spans the world from Mayan ruins to Indian museums, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Greek philosophers to Chinese libraries."-Le Figaro

"Follow the astonishing path of Georges Ifrah, the Indiana Jones of arithmetic . . . who decided in 1974 to begin the search for his Grail, the origin of numbers. Journeying over mountains and across valleys, he discovered how-from Mayan to Chinese, from Indian to Egyptian-humankind has juggled numbers."-Express

"Ifrah's book amazes and fascinates . . . It is nothing less than thehistory of the human race told through figures."-International Herald Tribune


About Georges Ifrah

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GEORGES IFRAH is an independent scholar and former math teacher. DAVID BELLOS, the primary translator, is Professor of French at Princeton University. SOPHIE WOOD, cotranslator, is a specialist in technical translation from French. IAN MONK, cotranslator, has translated the works of Georges Perec and Daniel Pennac.
Published January 30, 2005 by Penguin Books India. 552 pages
Genres: Humor & Entertainment, Science & Math, History. Non-fiction

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The second section, which looks at the computer’s mechanical ancestors—abacuses, clockwork calculators of the late Renaissance, and slide-rules—before tracing the development of ENIAC, the first modern electronic calculator, and its descendants, offers more dramatic episodes (including Germany’s ...

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Publishers Weekly

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A fascinating compendium of information about writing systemsDboth for words and numbersDand ancient systems of calculation, this followup book by the author of The Universal History of Numbers will enthrall specialists, though its perplexing structure may put off other readers.

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