By Allan Haley
Students of alphabet history know that our present letterforms evolved from the Roman monumental letters. Why is it, then, that our numerals are Arabic in origin?
The Romans did have a numbering system, of course. It was based on capital letters: I represented one, V represented five, X represented ten and so on. This approach may have worked perfectly well in monumental inscriptions, but it didn't work so well anyplace else. As a practical matter, Roman numerals were difficult to work with and prone to computational errors.
In the meantime, the Arabs had proven themselves to be excellent mathematicians, using numeric symbols borrowed from an ancient Hindu system of counting. However, all of the various numbering systems used by early cultures were hampered by the absence of the concept of zero. It wasn't until the sixth century A.D. that zero as a numerical value was developed, in India. Through their trade with India, the Arabs adopted the concept of zero and ultimately were responsible for bringing this useful notion to Europe.
For the most part, the symbols the Arabs used looked much like the numerals we use today, but it took many years for the Western world to incorporate these characters into printing and writing. As late as the twelfth century, most European numerals (except for the 1, 8 and 9) were different from the forms we use today. Commercial activity eventually caused the conversion from Roman numbering to the Arabic numerals preferred by merchants. As international trade expanded, so did the use of Arabic numbers.
When Gutenberg invented the art of typography he included a set of numbers in his font. In spite of this precedent, for almost a hundred years afterwards numbers were generally treated as "pi" characters - generic symbols that did not correspond to any particular typeface design. Claude Garamond, the celebrated 16th century type designer, is generally given credit for creating the first font of type that included numbers specifically designed to reflect the subtleties of its letterforms.
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.