Give us a SIGN

Just recently, in one of my tutorials I had to explain the “<,>” signs to a nine year old adorable person and I started thinking about the history of these signs. In a second I realized my mind went completely blind on this topic… Not Acceptable!! Thus I started looking for information.

Although many of our mathematical symbols and notations are standardised today, many are not. In the past ever fewer were standardised. The = sign was introduced in 1557 by Robert Recorde, a Welsh doctor and mathematician. The symbols < and > were first introduced in a book by Thomas Harriot, and English mathematician, in 1631, some ten years after his death, although his editor is credited for the notation. […] Then, over a hundred years later, in 1734, the symbols ≤ and ≥ were introduced by the French mathematician Pierre Bouguer.

from The bedside book of algebra

Obviously after this I had to search for more interesting facts about these signs and here is a small list of really interesting pieces of information:

  • The symbol ‘=’ was not immediately popular. The symbol || was used by some and æ (or œ), from the Latin word aequalis meaning equal, was widely used into the 1700s.
  • While Harriot was surveying North America, he saw a native American with a symbol that resembled the greater than symbol both backwards and forwards ( > and < ) a symbol which looks like intertwined less than and greater than symbols , thus it is likely he developed the two symbols from this symbol.
  • In his book, Robert Record wrote “is equal to” almost two hundred times for the first two hundred pages before finally declaring that he could easily “avoid the tedious repetition” of those three words by designing the symbol “=====” to represent them.

Now these signs are something so imprinted in our mind that we cannot imagine that most of the mathematics we are learning now in schools was developed way before these signs got to be invented. Nowadays we like to use funny animations or drawings to represent them when we first teacher children to use them in primary school.

How would our life be without these basic signs. Let’s just imagine how Einstein’s famous equation might have looked if one of these other proposed symbols for “equals” had triumphed:


Thank you for your help and support. You can find me on Facebook,  Tumblr,  Google+,  Twitter,  Instagram and Lettrs, I will try to post there as often as possible. Don’t forget that maths is everywhere! Enjoy!


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