Skip to main content

Who Created the Mathematical Symbols -- Math and More


Whoever Invented Them, Step Forward!

Believe me, when I was in first grade I was shy as hell. No Mr. brainy or uplifting writer whatsoever. Math was like Chinese or Polski to me. I still remember that first year in grammar school. The year was 1969. Am I old? Not really, age is just a number, according to Aaliyah.

I still can picture my first day in class, already chewing my pencil, because mom lied to me. She promised me to come back in a little while.

Yeah right! She came 5 hours later. I see myself seated on my new desk, and to my right... I see a new friend, or future friend, picking his nose and eating that greenish dried stuff! Turning to my left, I noticed another red headed fellow boy, crying and tearing up his notebook out of rage. I felt as though I was in a Juvenal facility.... Oh my!

No FB??


Suddenly, I see That Chalk making that squeal sound...

Writing on a blackboard, these simple numbers

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0

Teacher Miss Roberts, started talking about these numbers that our parents used a lot in front of us, as kids. We had to learn how to write them by heart. Today is easier, and you just type the darn numbers. Nonetheless, back in the day, you had to literally 'draw' those stupid numbers.

Eventually, we learned that Phoenicians and Persians, came out with these symbols. But I was just six years old, and everything was just scary -- Whoever never draw a ducky from that number two, never did his/her homework thoroughly. "You talking to me?"

Months later after that Christmas break we got in touch with this simple equation:

1+2=3 (one plus two equals three)

I felt like cheating and started using my fingers. Tell me you didn't do it? I was terrified with this new language for a young six years old soul. I always wanted to know why the sign plus is represented by a cross, '+' and now that I'm over 50, want to take my young self and find out why they did use all these new symbols the way they did? Talking about child abuse...?

Going back And Finding Answers

We get in touch with Robert Recorde A member of a respectable family of Tenby, Wales, born around 1510 or 1512. We try to get some answers and found him at Oxford University. The year is 1544. He is at the library, and generously gives us a tour. Wow! Nice smell of leather and books! Perfect setting for Harry Potter's next film!

Robert Recorde's own first ever equation


In today's clearer numbers


Visiting Oxford Library....

He shows us this equation:

The writing on the top graph is his own. We hardly recognize the x and some quotation "q" was added around the equal sign "=". Actually is the first equation ever recorded with modern terminology. The following paragraph of his own states, that "is better to introduce parallel bars so people can avoid tedious shortened words from Latin." Curious enough, we can browse through middle English before Shakespeare. What a difference from Runic alphabet and venerable Bede's Old English.

Scroll to Continue


"Howbeit, for easie alteratiõ of equations. I will propounde a fewe exãples, bicause the extraction of their rootes, maie the more aptly bee wroughte. And to auoide the tediouse repetition of these woordes : is equalle to : I will sette as I doe often in woorke vse, a paire of paralleles, or Gemowe lines of one lengthe, thus: =====, bicause noe .2. thynges, can be moare equalle. And now marke these nombers"

What a beautiful language indeed. This non-Kentish language was written around 1544 and can be understood if you read carefully.

Official pantone blue of Oxford University

Official pantone blue of Oxford University

What about the sign Plus and Minus?

We are there with Recorde whose knowledge of Latin and Theology marked his life. Henry VIII will die in 1547. His closest sign is of course the "Cross." The one that adds souls to Christendom. His Alma Matter motto is: "The Lord is my Light." We are sure that he chose that sign as a way of thanking his creator. How about the Minus sign, "-"?

We check history and see swords, black death and corpses lying on the streets "------"

Studying his age, his life, and his time, we come with a closer answer: Souls that depart from us, mean, they are subtracted from our everyday life. Amazing right?

My oneself at age six is also having a good time checking those humongous Books from Oxford Library. Certainly, a cinematic scene from "Game of Thrones." A welsh accent from him made us wonder... how about if England would've started speaking Welsh, after 1545? HubPages would been written in Celtic by now. "No kidding little John!"

Robert Recorde died in 1558 after being sued for defamation by a political enemy, he was arrested for debt and passed away in the King's Bench Prison, Southwalk, by the middle of June in 1558.


What about the Division Sign?

We had to travel to Switzerland where we find Johann Rahn (Latinised form Rhonius) (1622–1676) was a well known mathematician who was credited with the first use of the division symbol, ÷ (obelus). The symbol is used in Teutsche Algebra, published in 1659. Now we try to find out why he chose that sign.

From history we get that he lived through the 30 years war. We discovered that from 1654 to 1658 John Pell acted as Oliver Cormwell's political agent to the Protestant Cantons from Switzerland. I and little myself walked to Zurich in 1658. We find that John Pell is on a secret mission, but at the same time is teaching Algebra to Rahn. What we see is that John Pell is already writing the division symbol "÷" on multiple equations. He asked Rahn, not to mention his name, because Calvinist Zurich would suspect this Englishman!

We analyze the symbol and recreate its evolution on the graph shown above.

Title page of 'Principia', first edition (1687).

Title page of 'Principia', first edition (1687).

So who the Hell created the x symbol?

Checking and traveling through time we find our answer: The × symbol for multiplication was introduced by William Oughtred in 1631. Oughtred also introduced the abbreviations sin and cos for sine and cosine functions. My Young self is already lost with trigonometry, so I tell him just to stay calmed. William Oughtred published, among other mathematical works, Clavis Mathematicae (The Key to Mathematics), in 1631.

Right on time for Newton to catch up with 2,000 years of math and publicize his Principia Mathematica in 1687. How did he come out with the sign? Sir William Oughtred was innovated freely in symbols, and loved the occult; he had a deep interest in alchemy and astrology. So somehow, he came out with this triple X divided by three. "Is not funny Joseph"

My young self started jumping of joy!

We have visited these mathematicians together, and we have felt their thougthts. For some reason I came to terms with my own little self. I left little Joseph in class, but took with me the smell of Miss Roberts' Parisian perfume... and the rewarding 'candy' she gave me for getting a B+ in class, back in 1969. "Oh would you please Mrs Robinson...!"


Joseph De Cross (author) from New York on August 18, 2012:

Thanks so much Rahul! I'm so behind in commenting. Your wise comment makes me appreciate more the person behind the young man!

Jessee R from Gurgaon, India on August 16, 2012:

I am enlightened... Thank you Sir Joseph for this hub...

For me numbers are the most interesting entities on the earth... they can define anything in a satisfying or non-satisfying way ( you know what I mean? )

To go exploring the origins must have been fun...

Great hub

Joseph De Cross (author) from New York on July 24, 2012:

Mmsu, you are free from that math, and we appreciate your visit. Wow you wrote from PK. Truly appreciated!

@Mary, is a mix of everything, we have been reading these things from ages. I was thinking if the Spanish ARMADA would've defeated English Galleons back in 1587, the thirteen colonies would've had a different tea party. Math symbols came in handy and they evolved as life became more complicated. Thanks MARY!

Mary Craig from New York on July 24, 2012:

Here's to you Mrs. Robinson...if she's the one that dug the well from which this fantastic mind springs! You either really, really like math history or you researched this very well(or maybe both)...either way it was an interesting hub even for me (a mathaphobe).

Voted up and interesting.

mmsu from Pakistan on July 24, 2012:

Well written hub but I hate Math!Never have scored well in maths!I wish it was never created=P

Joseph De Cross (author) from New York on July 24, 2012:

GoFor The Juggler,

Is just how math came to us. Parents did hire a tutor, who taught us the tricks. So we look at it as a good script handed down from pythagoras to Newton, and then Einstein. Is in the eye of the beholder...!

Joshua Patrick from Texas on July 24, 2012:

Interesting read here. I've never had the patience for math (it requires ALL of my concentration) and gave up on it the first chance I could. Right-brain for life! =P

Joseph De Cross (author) from New York on July 23, 2012:

Hi beingWell,

We enjoyed your comment, and your sincerity. Hello there bangkok! Nice to see you in here! Take care!

Joseph De Cross (author) from New York on July 23, 2012:

Hi Cloud Explorer,

Thanks for visiting us Mike! HubPages has allowed us to grow, and expand our imagination. You have grown as well. We appreciate what you do for all of us. Thanks for leaving a meaninful comment. Thank God, we have good memory and some inherited genes. Thanks for reading us Mike!

Janine Huldie,

When you like to read and want to share your experiences, things and inspiration come easily. You don't have to ashamed at all. You are a busy wife and mommy. We know you comment from your heart. Thanks for all you do for us.

PeoplePower 73,

We appreciate your input and time to make this hub richer. That was a good adding, Sir. Thanks for reading us. We did a good research to cover everything smoothly.

Rebbeca mealey,

Math has a unique abstraction of its own, and have been causing havoc during those 3,500 years on recorded history. There are signs that it was know before Ur. Only God knows how far we can go back, and find the truth.

Thanks again peoplepower73. We understand perfectly what you said.

Rubi dear, You always funny and so open. Your humor made us smile. No one liked math at those earlier ages. The thing is.... we never asked for it. It was forced into the mind of a first grader. Traumatic moments cannot be forgotten so easily. Thanks for your feedback!


beingwell from Bangkok on July 23, 2012:

Wow! I didn't know the history of math..haha!! I've always enjoyed it though... not good at it; but I enjoy it nonetheless.

Shared this one.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on July 23, 2012:

Math..I hated it. Thank goodness for our fingers and toes. HaHa ..Fun hun, educational...

Mike Russo from Placentia California on July 23, 2012:

I forgot to say, it was only the inside angles that were counted.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on July 23, 2012:

It's curious how all those mathematical symbols got started. I remember when I use to teach elementary school about how the standard units of measures were established to ensure uniformity.Aaahhh, mathematics! So confusing yet so fascinating!

Mike Russo from Placentia California on July 23, 2012:

Very interesting hub. You propably already have heard of this, but I'm just going to put it out there for others. I read that arabic numerals came from counting angles. Originally a 1 was written with one angle a 2 with two angles and so on up until 9...and the 0 has no angles. Very informative and entertaining hub, voting up, interesting and sharing.

Janine Huldie from New York, New York on July 23, 2012:

Another mathematical gem from you Joseph. Seriously I learned quite a bit of this in a graduate course I took on the History of Math, but am a bit ashamed to say I don't remember as much of it as I should. Thanks for the refresher here. Voted and shared too.

Mike Pugh from New York City on July 23, 2012:

This one was loaded with funnies, and some intense research from mathematical history trivia it seems, wow, and I like how you partnered your today self with your young child self, wow.

Interesting style of writing here Joseph, I enjoyed ever bit if learning how these math signs were constructed, nice!

Voted up on many levels, and you know the rest.

Joseph De Cross (author) from New York on July 23, 2012:

Hi ChristyWrites,

Yeah we love to jump ourselves in time framing experiences. There is such a good deal of inspiration that grab history and science by the horns. Keep smiling!

Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on July 23, 2012:

I enjoyed this trip back in time with Math. I vote up and awesome because it's a neat combo!

Joseph De Cross (author) from New York on July 23, 2012:

Nice to see you Mellonyy from NY. Your feedback is trully appreciated. Nice to have you with us. Have a nice week!

Mellonyy on July 23, 2012:

Interesting and useful hub! Shared!

Joseph De Cross (author) from New York on July 23, 2012:

Ron Howster, Morning friend,

Well as far as we know, it was German Liebnitz who introduced the symbol or notation for integration, as he thought is was a process of adding long infinitesimal summatories. That same year, 1687, Newton introduced his own notation, but didn't go far. Fascinating to know that both invented calculus at the same time, being over 500 miles apart.

Millonarie tips,

These folks depended much on the quill to make their calculations, and sooner or later they started shortening their symbols and notations. Same like this one : & meaning and, from ampersand. If you look at the symbol, is a representation of the french conjunction ET, who became 'et', ct, &. Amazing to say the least!

Joseph De Cross (author) from New York on July 23, 2012:

Aww Debbie, you made us crack up ! lol! You still counting with your fingers? Well, We all do sometimes. You need math lessons? Sure I would like to give you some, but online. Just drop the question on FB.

Morning RealHouseWife,

Your comment was excellent. They created them because just abreviations were not cutting it! And you so amazingly funny! We paid you back leaving you meaninful comments. Hello ! Saint Louis!

Marcoujor, Thanks for your fun comment! OMg! You always so creative! Our research was done with so much love, and we think we did good. Thanks for that feeback Maria!

Nell Rose, You always so precocioulsy funny. We can used our toes and fingers if needed, but we know some shortcuts. Thanks for helping us to share this hub. Much appreciated!

Yes Tammy! William Oughtred was your man! Well, one of them, Robert Recorde was also a great person to talk to. This hub was inspired by so many pioneers who went against established norms and regulations. I wonder how Pytagoras made his additions?

Shasta Matova from USA on July 23, 2012:

It is interesting that you were able to find the creators of these symbols. I would have thought they were much older - too old to really know.

Ron Hawkster from United States of America on July 23, 2012:

What a cool article. One of those questions that you wonder about when you first come across it, and come across it again, this time much more mystified. I read the hub, and was not disappointed. I definitely find the roots of the plus symbol the most fascinating.

Any info on how the "integral" symbol came about?

Tammy from North Carolina on July 22, 2012:

William Oughtred ... now I have a name for that diabolical creator of "x" and inciter of temper tantrums all over college campuses. I suppose math has a purpose. And yes, I do count on my fingers.

Nell Rose from England on July 22, 2012:

Yes used my fingers and my toes! lol! how clever to figure out the symbols, I still try to figure out the darn maths! if there is one thing I can't do, and I can do plenty! is maths! I just don't get it! I obviously know the usual 1 + 1 etc, but those symbols just throw me! lol!

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on July 22, 2012:

What the heck is wrong with using your fingers? haha!

Hey pretty fun and interesting...I did wonder how those symbols came about. I wished so many times they had not! haha!

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on July 22, 2012:

cos itsa sin that's y...

oh who? not sure...

greenish dried stuff (ewe, LORD...) I hope he is OK now.

Deborah Brooks Langford from Brownsville,TX on July 22, 2012:

Joseph yes I have to admit I still use my fingers.. lol.. I remember those cry babies in school I was one of I can tell you love math any kind of math.. You are so good at this.. Your hubs are exceptional.. and so inspiring.. so I need math lessons.. lol



Related Articles