(iii) Other Systems of Antiquity.—The Egyptian notation was purely denary, the only separate signs being those for 1, 10, 100, &c. The ordinary notation of the Babylonians was denary, but they also used a sexagesimal scale, i.e. a scale whose base was 60. The Hebrews had a notation containing separate signs (the letters of the alphabet) for numbers from 1 to 10, then for multiples of 10 up to 100, and then for multiples of 100 up to 400, and later up to 1000.
The earliest Greek system of notation was similar to the Roman, except that the symbols for 50, 500, &c., were more complicated. Later, a system similar to the Hebrew was adopted, and extended by reproducing the first nine symbols of the series, preceded by accents, to denote multiplication by 1000.
On the island of Ceylon there still exists, or existed till recently, a system which combines some of the characteristics of the later Greek (or Semitic) and the modern European notation; and it is conjectured that this was the original Hindu system.
For a further account of the above systems see Numeral, and the authorities quoted at the end of the present article.
21. The Number-Concept.—It is probable that very few people have any definite mental presentation of individual numbers (i.e. numbers proceeding by differences of one) beyond 100, or at any rate beyond 144. Larger numbers are grasped by forming numbers into groups or by treating some large number as a unit. A person would appreciate the difference between 93,000,000 m. and 94,000,000 m. as the distance of the centre of the sun from the centre of the earth at a particular moment; but he certainly would not appreciate the relative difference between 93,000,000 m. and 93,000,001 m. In order to get an idea of 93,000,000, he must take a million as his unit. Similarly, in the metric system he cannot mentally compare two units, one of which is 1000 times the other. The metre and the kilometre, for instance, or the metre and the millimetre, are not directly comparable; but the metre can be conceived as containing 100 centimetres.
On the other hand, it would seem that, for most educated people, sixteen and seventeen or twenty-six and twenty-seven, and even eighty-six and eighty-seven, are single numbers, just as six and seven are, and are not made up of groups of tens and ones. In other words, the denary scale, though adopted in notation and in numeration, does not arise in the corresponding mental concept until we get beyond 100.
Again, in the use of decimals, it is unusual to give less than two figures. Thus 3.142 or 3.14 would be quite intelligible; but 3.1 does not convey such a good idea to most people as either 3 1⁄10 or 3.10, i.e. as an expression denoting a fraction or a percentage.
There appears therefore to be a tendency to use some larger number than ten as a basis for grouping into new units or for subdivision into parts. The Babylonians adopted 60 for both these purposes, thus giving us the sexagesimal division of angles and of time.
This view is supported, not only by the intelligibility of percentages to ordinary persons, but also by the tendency, noted above (§ 19), to group years into centuries, and to avoid the use of thousands. Thus 1876 is not 1 thousand, 8 hundred, 7 tens and 6, but 18 hundred and 76, each of the numbers 18 and 76 being named as if it were a single number. It is also in accordance with what is so far known about number-forms (§ 23).
If there is this tendency to adopt 100 as a basis instead of 10, the teaching of decimals might sometimes be simplified by proceeding from percentages to percentages of percentages, i.e. by commencing with centesimals instead of with decimals.
22. Perception of Number.—In using material objects as a basis for developing the number-concept, it must be remembered that it is only when there are a few objects that their number can be perceived without either counting or the performance of some arithmetical process such as addition. If four coins are laid on a table, close together, they can (by most adults) be seen to be four, without counting; but seven coins have to be separated mentally into two groups, the numbers of which are added, or one group has to be seen and the remaining objects counted, before the number is known to be seven.
The actual limit of the number that can be “seen”—i.e. seen without counting or adding—depends for any individual on the shape and arrangement of the objects, but under similar conditions it is not the same for all individuals. It has been suggested that as many as six objects can be seen at once; but this is probably only the case with few people, and with them only when the objects have a certain geometrical arrangement. The limit for most adults, under favourable conditions, is about four. Under certain conditions it is less; thus IIII, the old Roman notation for four, is difficult to distinguish from III, and this may have been the main reason for replacing it by IV (§ 15).
In the case of young children the limit is probably two. That this was also the limit in the case of primitive races, and that the classification of things was into one, two and many, before any definite process of counting (e.g. by the fingers) came to be adopted, is clear from the use of the “dual number” in language, and from the way in which the names for three and four are often based on those for one and two. With the individual, as with the race, the limit of the number that can be seen gradually increases up to four or five.
The statement that a number of objects can be seen to be three or four is not to be taken as implying that there is a simultaneous perception of all the objects. The attention may be directed in succession to the different objects, so that the perception is rhythmical; the distinctive rhythm thus aiding the perception of the particular number.
In consequence of this limitation of the power of perception of number, it is practically impossible to use a pure denary scale in elementary number-teaching. If a quinary-binary system (such as would naturally fit in with counting on the fingers) is not adopted, teachers unconsciously resort to a binary-quinary system. This is commonly done where cubes are used; thus seven is represented by three pairs of cubes, with a single cube at the top.
23. Visualization of the Series.—A striking fact, in reference to ideas of number, is the existence of number-forms, i.e. of definite arrangements, on an imagined plane or in space, of the mental representations of the successive numbers from 1 onwards. The proportion of persons in whom number-forms exist has been variously estimated; but there is reason to believe that the forms arise at a very early stage of childhood, and that they did at some time exist in many individuals who have afterwards forgotten them. Those persons who possess them are also apt to make spatial arrangements of days of the week or the month, months of the year, the letters of the alphabet, &c.; and it is practically certain that only children would make such arrangements of letters of the alphabet. The forms seem to result from a general tendency to visualization as an aid to memory; the letter-forms may in the first instance be quite as frequent as the number-forms, but they vanish in early childhood, being of no practical value, while the number-forms continue as an aid to arithmetical work.
The forms are varied, and have few points in common; but the following tendencies are indicated.
(i) In the majority of cases the numbers lie on a continuous (but possibly zigzag) line.
(ii) There is nearly always (at any rate in English cases) a break in direction at 12. From 1 to 12 the numbers sometimes lie in the circumference of a circle, an arrangement obviously suggested by a clock-face; in these cases the series usually mounts upwards from 12. In a large number of cases, however, the direction is steadily upwards from 1 to 12, then changing. In some cases the initial direction is from right to left or from left to right; but there are very few in which it is downwards.
(iii) The multiples of 10 are usually strongly marked; but special stress is also laid on other important numbers, e.g. the multiples of 12.
(iv) The series sometimes goes up to very high numbers, but sometimes stops at 100, or even earlier. It is not stated, in most cases, whether all the numbers within the limits of the series have definite positions, or whether there are only certain numbers which form an essential part of the figure, while others only