New Number Symbols For a New Millennium

Old number challenge (Jim Henry)

Come up with a completely new set of symbols for the numbers from 0 to 9.

Three winning answers are pictured. Bill Hasek's 1 has one stroke, 2 has two strokes, 3 has three strokes, 4 has four strokes, 5 resembles an F for five, and the rest are curvy, including an upside-down empty bowl for 0.

Michael Marcotty's, although similar to our current number symbols, have a neat feature: The symbol for 1 has one angle to it, the symbol for 2 has two angles to it, and so on. Marcotty further proposes replacing the decimal point by the European decimal comma, to avoid confusion with his new raised dot for zero.

Dave Rossum's "clock" numerals are original, systematic, and easy to write, although they could be confused, especially on dice or other objects that might be upside down. (Erik Randolph mentions the trouble his young son had confusing M and W, for example.) Incidentally, John Robertson mentions a disadvantage of the English pronunciation of letters as compared with numerals: One often needs to say "b as in boy," but not "9 as in...."

New challenge (Aubrey Dunne, Michael Marcotty, and Dave Rossum)

Census taker: How old are your three daughters?

Mrs. S: The product of their ages is 36, and the sum of their ages is the address on our door here.

Census taker: I'm good at math, but I cannot tell.

Mrs. S: My eldest daughter has red hair.

Census taker: Oh thanks, now I know.

Can you figure out how old the three daughters are?

* Send answers, comments, and new questions to:

Math Chat,

Math Dept., Williams College,

Williamstown, MA 01267

or by e-mail to


In the Math Chat column of June 25, the Indic numerals for 7 and 8 were mistakenly switched. Here is the correct version.

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