It might seem like an obvious piece of any numerical system, but the zero is a surprisingly recent development in human history. In fact, this ubiquitous symbol for “nothing” didn’t even find its way to Europe until as late as the 12th century.
Zero’s origins most likely date back to the “fertile crescent” of ancient Mesopotamia. Sumerian scribes used spaces to denote absences in number columns as early as 4,000 years ago, but the first recorded use of a zero-like symbol dates to sometime around the third century B.C. in ancient Babylon. The Babylonians employed a number system based around values of 60, and they developed a specific sign—two small wedges—to differentiate between magnitudes in the same way that modern decimal-based systems use zeros to distinguish between tenths, hundreds and thousandths. A similar type of symbol cropped up independently in the Americas sometime around A.D. 350, when the Mayans began using a zero marker in their calendars.
These early counting systems only saw the zero as a placeholder—not a number with its own unique value or properties. A full grasp of zero’s importance would not arrive until the seventh century A.D. in India. There, the mathematician Brahmagupta and others used small dots under numbers to show a zero placeholder, but they also viewed the zero as having a null value, called “sunya.” Brahmagupta was also the first to show that subtracting a number from itself results in zero.
From India, the zero made its way to China and back to the Middle East, where it was taken up by the mathematician Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi around 773. He studied and synthesized Indian arithmetic and showed how zero functioned in the system of formulas he called ‘al-jabr’—today known as algebra. By the 10th century, the zero had entered the Arabic numeral system in a form resembling the oval shape we use today.
The zero continued to migrate for another few centuries before finally reaching Europe sometime around the 1100s. Thinkers like the Italian mathematician Fibonacci helped introduce zero to the mainstream, and it later figured prominently in the work of Rene Descartes along with Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz’s invention of calculus. Since then, the concept of “nothing” has continued to play a role in the development of everything from physics and economics to engineering and computing.