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The history of mathematical symbols
An animated sketch, set in London in 1659, shows a customer attempting to upgrade a sum written in longhand as words to a more modern, useable version. The shopkeeper explains various symbols used to represent mathematical operations: A pair of walking legs representing plus in ancient Egypt; the letters P and M for plus and minus from the 15th Century, as well as the modern symbols used to this day for plus, minus, multiply, divide and equals.
Have students write out a range of calculations without the use of the conventional symbols. They should notice this becoming more and more unworkable as the calculations increase in difficulty. The clip touches on some of the historical background to the development of maths and learning. Discuss the impact of the printing press on making ideas, including maths, easier to spread and to share. The use of P and M as maths symbols by a Franciscan friar could contribute to discussion of the Church and other bodies as centres of learning.
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