The interesting thing about the division symbol is that it was not originally used for division. The division sign was in fact first used in the field of literature. The original division symbol was also known as Obelus or Obeli in the plural. The Obelus was originally used to mark dishonest or dubious claims made in ancient manuscripts. It can be said that this symbol for the division was first used in some of the earliest instances of fact-checking.

Most notably the Obelus was said to be invented by Aristarchus to mark spurious chapters in Homer. The division sign was also used in the same way to mark manuscripts of the Gospel. This meant that famous passages in Luke were deleted from texts that were dominant in Egypt, especially in Alexandria. Two passages - "The Bloody Sweat," and "Father, forgive them" were committed from Egyptian texts of the Gospel.

The obelisk symbol which is still used today carries on the same meaning. It is used as a reference mark, to indicate that someone is dead, or used to indicate a footnote. This symbol which is derived from the Obelus is shaped like a dagger. Instead of a horizontal bar with dots above and below, there are two bars - one short horizontal bar that joins three-quarters of the way up of a vertical bar. This symbol is much like the Christian cross symbol. This article will further talk about the history of the Obelus and how it came to represent division.

The symbol was first used as a mathematical notation by Swiss mathematician Johann Heinrich Rahn. This was published in the book Teutsche Algebra in 1659. However, the first use of this symbol for division has also been attributed to English mathematician John Pell.

Pell was appointed by Oliver Cromwell to teach mathematics in London. He was then sent to Zurich Swisserland to teach mathematics. This is where he met and taught the Swiss mathematician Johann Heinrich Rahn. In particular, he taught Rahn the practice of tabulation of calculations. The book Teutsche Algebra was also edited by Pell who made additions of his own. This is why many believe the Obelus was first used as a mathematical symbol by Pell.

Thomas Brancker brought the symbol to London after translating the work of Swiss mathematician Johann Rahn.

What is the history of plus and minus symbols?

Other mathematical symbols were used as mathematical notations before the Obelus. For example, the plus and minus mathematical symbols date back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Nicole d' Oresme (1323-1382) of France first used the plus symbol as an abbreviation of the Latin word 'el'. El in Latin translates to and in English and was used in his work titled Algorismus Proportionum.

The earliest use of both plus and minus signs was published in 1489. This work was completed by German mathematician Johannes Widmann in the book Mercantile Arithmetic, or Behende und hüpsche Rechenung auff allen Kauffmanschafft.

However, the German mathematician used the plus and minus symbol in different ways to modern mathematics. Instead of plus meaning addition, or symbolising a positive number it instead represented a surplus in business problems. The minus sign also did not mean subtraction and did not represent a negative number. Instead, the symbol meant a deficit in business operations.

Different mathematicians also helped to evolve and enshrine the plus and subtraction symbol in modern mathematics. Giel Vander Hoecke used both symbols in 1514 in the book Een sonderlinghe boeck in dye edel conste Arithmetica which was published in Antwerp. Some say he was the first person to use these signs as algebraic expressions. However, others say that the symbols were already in use by Henricus Grammateus. He published a book in 1518 named Ayn new Kunstlich Buech. Robert Recorde helped both symbols become commonplace in England when he published Whetstone of Witte in 1557.

What is the history of the multiplication sign?

The X sign of multiplication was first used by English mathematician William Oughtred. This was written in Clavis Mathematicae or Key to Mathematics. It was published in London in 1631 but is estimated to have been composed three years earlier. There was an attempt to replace the X symbol with a dot by G. W. Leibniz.

Johann Rahn used an asterisk instead of a cross or a dot. This was published in the already mentioned Teutsche Algebra. Juxtaposition was also used as a notation of multiplication. Manuscripts found near the village of Bakhshali, India showed that juxtaposition used in multiplication was used in either the eighth, ninth, or tenth centuries. This was also used throughout the 15th century including by Arab mathematicians like al-Qalasadi.

What was the first use of mathematics?

The history of mathematical equations dates back to at least 30,000B.C. Four countries are especially important in the history of mathematical advancement, in particular the birth of maths. These countries are:

  • India
  • Egypt
  • Mesopotamia
  • China

The first mathematical text is said to be the Chóu-peï, which dates around 1105 B.C. However, maths likely existed much longer than this in the country. As the Chinese Emperor Shï Huang-ti (259 B.C. - 210(1) B.C ordered all books be destroyed in 213 B.C much of this ancient history was lost.

Hindus were responsible for much of the mathematical operation in India between 800 B.C and 1200 A.D. This period brought about the early theory of numbers, geometry, and astronomy as well as arithmetics.

Evidence of early Egyptian mathematics can be found in the surviving structures of Egypt. The magnificent pyramids are evidence of exceptional engineering using precise calculations. As early as 6000 BCE Egyptians recorded seasons and lunar phases. They are also said to be the first civilisation to have a complete 10 numeration system dated to at least as early as 2700 BCE. The Moscow Papyrus is the oldest known mathematical text which dates to around 2000 – 1800 BCE.

The Sumerians of Mesopotamia birthed many inventions including; the wheel, writing, agriculture, the arch, the plow, and irrigation. They also developed a system to measure plots of land and taxation between the years 6000 BC to 5001 BC. A clay cone and other symbols were used to simply relate a symbol to a quantity. For example, a small clay cone meant one, a clay ball meant 10, and a large cone meant 60. An early form of the abacus was likely used in Sumeria as early as 2700 – 2300 BCE. They also invented a base 60 numeric system.

The number 30,000 B.C comes from the very earliest instances of mathematics. Prehistoric humans used notched bones and tally sticks to count. The earliest evidence for this was found in central Africa and they are estimated to be 35,000 to 20,000 years old.

What is the legacy of mathematical history?

The evolution of mathematics can be summed up perfectly by Sir Isaac Newton who attributed his own incredible success to his predecessors:
"If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants"

This expresses the incremental steps in human development needed to thrust us forward to the pinnacle of human knowledge. At one point in time, humans made notches on a sharpened stick or bone to count. Today the entire history of math is condensed and uploaded to the internet, allowing people to do complex calculations online in the blink of an eye. Intricate problems like long division can be done using online calculators.

Much like biological evolution, this knowledge was only achieved by very small advancements over thousands of years. Building on knowledge and perfecting techniques century after century. Even basic fundamental operations in society that we take for granted would not be possible without maths. This includes; calendars, recipes, transport, bridges and buildings.

Originally the division sign was was used as a notation in literature. The first use of the division sign in mathematics was done by Johann H Rahn, or John Pell in in 1659.

Addition and subtraction notation was previously used to convey surpluses and deficits in business operations. Giel Vander Hoecke first published the notation we use today in 1514.

William Oughtred first published the multiplication notation of an X in 1631. Other mathematicians tried to usher in different symbols such as an asterisk or a dot but this did not become the norm.