Babylon’s number system reverberates today.

For some reason, I found myself wondering why we have 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, or 360 degrees in a circle. It turns out that these divisions are a 4000 year old legacy from Babylon (a Mestopotamian city-state located about 50 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq). The Babylonians used a base 60 number system. We, of course, use a base 10 (or “decimal”) number system.

Babylonian numerals
Babylonian numerals

I’ve found a number of conjectures that attempt to explain why the Babylonians used a base 60 number system. None makes complete sense to me.

Apparently they also thought that there were 360 days in a year.

B52s Mesopotamia cover art
Youtube video: B-52s Mesopotamia

If you program computers at anything beyond the most elementary levels, you will be familiar with the binary (base 2) and hexadecimal (base 16) number systems, so a number system with a base other than 10 won’t seem entirely strange. After working in other number systems, I’ve become aware that “numbers” (such as depicted in the first illustration) are mere symbols that represent a quantity. Each of the four symbols below depicts exactly the same quantity: 12.

12 (in decimal, or base 10, notation)

0C (in hexadecimal, or base 16, notation)

00001100 (in binary, or base 2, notation)

(in Babylonian, or base 60, notation)


I’m happy that in the intervening 4000 years, we’ve switched to the decimal number system. Why have we kept the 360 divisions to a circle idea? Maybe I’m missing something, but couldn’t we just decide to divide the circle into, say, 100 divisions? Or 1000 divisions? Does anyone care to join me? I’ll meet you by the third pyramid.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

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