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Good Math by Mark C. Chu-Carroll

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Where Did This Mess Come From?

The main theory about the origin of roman numerals is that they were invented by shepherds, who counted their flocks by marking notches on their staffs. The system that became roman numerals started off as just these notches on a staff, not letters at all.

When counting their sheep, a shepherd would mark four notches, one at a time for the first four; and then on the fifth one, they would cut a diagonal notch, in pretty much the same way that we commonly write four lines and then a diagonal strike-through for five when tallying something. But instead of striking through the preceding notches, they just used the diagonal to turn a “/” notch into “V.” Every tenth notch was marked by a strike-through so it looked ...

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