Terry Jones made a very amusing documentary film about the origins of our current numbering system, and specifically the number 1. Some of the points he makes in the film include the following -
Numbers and counting things were the world's first example of writing.
Australian aborigines have no number system in their language. They don't count things, they name them.
The need for counting seemed to be associated with the building of cities, where the numbers of people and things are important.
Archimedes developed formulas to describe theoretical mathematics.
The Romans liked to count things, especially the number of men in their armies, and so they developed the numerals system to record large numbers. This system was spread across Europe by the expansion of the Roman Empire.
The arabic system of numbers that we use today was created in India in 500BC. It was picked up by Fibonacci and introduced to Europe, and it travelled to the Middle East from there.
A system for taking human error out of calculations was proposed as early as the 1600s but not built then. The theory was implemented in the development of the code-breaking machine, the Colossus, at Bletchley Park during WWII.
The binary number system, whereby calculations can brought back to patterns of ones and zeros, forms the basis of our computers today.
It is a very well made film that provides a simple and amusing explanation of the history of our number system. If you're interested you can watch the film at
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