Book Review: The Universal History of Numbers


A review I wrote 20 years ago.

Georges Ifrah is a Frenchman of Moroccan origin who was an ordinary schoolteacher of mathematics before his students sparked one of the great intellectual quests of our time (or, indeed, of any time). His students asked him where numbers came from? Who invented them and why? How did they take their modern form? When he tried to answer these simple questions, he found that the information found in standard textbooks was highly unsatisfactory and frequently contradictory. Not content with passing on half-truths and conjectures, Mr. Ifrah abandoned his job and embarked on a ten-year quest to uncover the history of numbers. He traveled to the four corners of the world, read thousands of books, visited hundreds of libraries and museums and asked questions of countless scholars. All this research was supported by odd jobs as delivery boy, chauffer, waiter, night watchman and so on. The result was a book called FROM ONE TO ZERO A Universal History of Numbers, (published in English translation in 1985  ). The book was a hit and brought fame and fortune and the chance to do more research. This led to a much larger book, The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer, which was translated into English in 1998 (after initial publication in French in 1994) and is now available in either one or two volumes.

These books have earned Mr. Ifrah the title of “Indiana Jones of numbers” and worldwide celebrity. After reading the book, I can only add that he deserves every superlative that has been used, and more. To quote a reviewer from “The Guardian”: “Georges Ifrah is the man, and this book, quite simply, rules.” This is not just a history of numbers, it is universal history disguised as the history of numbers. Mr. Ifrah starts with the most basic questions; what kind of “counting sense” do animals possess? What do we know about the number sense of our pre-human ancestors? When we evolved into Homo sapiens sapiens, what kind of numerical ability was “hard-wired” into our brains? He presents fascinating information about the most primitive counting systems, using tally marks, fingers, body parts etc. from these simple beginnings, we move to the abstract concepts of number and its notations. The detail provided is astounding. We learn about the earliest systems of numbers used in the Middle East, India, china, and the ancient Maya etc.etc. And not only do we learn about the numbers, Mr. Ifrah slips in his humanistic, sensitive and very very detailed knowledge of history so smoothly that we hardly notice that we are learning, not just the history of numbers, but the history of mankind; told by a very fair, very balanced and deeply sympathetic observer. Continue reading “Book Review: The Universal History of Numbers”