Egyptian Numbers --- Introduction --- Addition --- Multiplication --- Fractions

Enter a number from 1 to 9999999 to see how the Egyptians would have written it, or enter a number to count with.

In the Arabic number system, we have ten digits (from 0-9) and we can make as big a number as we want with these. We use all ten digits to count to nine, then we combine them to make bigger numbers. So we never run out of numbers, as long as there is room to write them down. The ancient Egyptians didn't think this. They had a simple line to mean one, like us, but instead of a new symbol for two, they used two lines. There were three lines for three, four lines for four, and so on, up to nine lines for nine. By now, there were rather a lot of lines! So they introduced a new symbol for ten. Then they carried on adding lines for units and ten symbols for ten, until they got to a hundred, which needed a new symbol. This sort of system is called unary. It is common among ancient civilisations. One advantage of unary systems is that it doesn't matter what order you write the number. You can jumble them up and you can still work out what they mean. But in our system, 123 means something different to 321. The Egyptians used ten as a base for their number systems, just like us. We have ten fingers on our hands, so base 10 is common.

1 | The symbol for one may come from a finger. Everyone starts off counting on their fingers! | |

10 | The symbols get more complicated as the numbers get bigger. The symbol for ten is a piece of rope. | |

100 | The symbol for a hundred is a coil of rope. | |

1,000 | The symbol for a thousand is the lotus or water lily. It shows the leaf, stem and rhizome or root. It seems odd not to show the flower, but you can eat the root. | |

10,000 | The symbol for ten thousand is a single, large finger. Perhaps it is a finger ten thousand times as big as the symbol for one! | |

100,000 | The symbol for a hundred thousand is a tadpole. It seems to be nearly turning into a frog. If you want to know why this is the symbol for such a large number, imagine a pool full of frog spawn all turning into tiny frogs. | |

1,000,000 | The symbol for a million is a god called Heh. It also means just a very large number, like 'squillion'. I think it looks like a fisherman describing how big was the fish that got away - "It was enormous!" |

The Egyptians even had this symbol for infinity, which is bigger than any number that's ever been written. It is a circle, so you go round forever without finding an end. In the picture of Ra on the right, you can see the falcon holding this symbol in each talon.

The Egyptians would have needed a good number system to build the pyramids. They would have needed to work out how much stone they needed, and when, otherwise the workmen making the pyramid would have been sitting round most of the time doing nothing, waiting for new stone. All these workmen needed to be fed, so you would need to calculate how much food, and store it, and make sure it didn't run out. They needed to calculate with very big numbers! Adding was quite easy with these numbers, but they even managed to multiply with them. The Egyptians also had symbols for fractions. But they didn't have a symbol for zero.

© Jo Edkins 2006 - Return to Numbers index