The Arithmeticke Project

Coordinator: Pauline White

This project investigated the diffusion of Hindu-Arabic numerals to replace Roman in Britain, as evidenced by wills, probate inventories and other recurrent historical sources, during the period 1540-1700. The review of this project was published in our Journal Family and Community History, Vol 6/1 May 2003

The project originated from a section of the paper given by Dr Peter Wardley at the FACHRS Conference on 15 April 2000. On this occasion he outlined detailed research on this topic, the diffusion of Hindu-Arabic numerals to replace roman, in two areas of England: the small parish of Clee in South Humberside and the City of Bristol, based on evidence from probate inventories.

This is summarised in his research paper: 'Dead Reckoning to Count the Change: number and numerical representation in the early modern period'. In both areas, this major change in numerical representation occurred gradually between 1585 and 1650. Whilst easily unnoticed, this was a major shift in commonly used technology; the only comparable change to affect similarly the whole community in recent times was decimalization of the United Kingdom currency in 1971.

The results that emerged from these various micro-studies within the Arithmeticke Project confirm that, for many communities, the diffusion of Hindu-Arabic numerals occurred in the half-century from the end of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th, with significant changes in the period 1620-1650. However, this experience was not universal, and in some areas Roman numerals were still dominant at the end of the research period, 1700 and beyond.