Lilliput, Excel and Arabic Numerals

EggsOur numbers are backwards. I’m talking about the Arabic Numerals we use everyday. I realized it one day while using Microsoft Excel. Type any letter into a blank spreadsheet, and it will align to the left, just like the text you’re reading. Type any number however, and it’ll jump to the right as soon as you hit the enter key. This is hardly proof that our entire number system is backwards, but when taken with the historical and mathematical context, it’s an open-and-shut case.

Why They’re Called Arabic Numerals

Years ago I read that Arabic and Hebrew and other right-to-left writing systems still write their numbers the sane way we do, with the highest-valued digit first. At first I thought this seemed backwards, but then I remembered that our number system is called Arabic Numerals. They used it first, and they decided to put the smallest digit first, not last. so it would seem that we’re the ones who have it backwards. The question is, does it really matter?

Big Endians and Little Endians

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift tells the story of two groups warring over how to eat soft-boiled eggs. The Lilliputians are Little Endians who insist on eating the narrow end of the egg first, whereas the Big Endian Blefuscudians start with the wider end. Swift was making fun of the wars between Protestant Britain and Catholic France, but 20th century computer pioneers found meaning in the tale.

In the early days of computer science, computer scientists argued over how to process a binary number Do you start with the highest value or the lowest? It seems like a picayune detail it made a big difference to big, dumb machines. Take the binary number 00000001. As a Little Endian number, it equals 1. But as a Big Endian number, it means 128. That’s a pretty significant difference.

Backward vs. Forward

In the end, computer scientists found that they could live with both systems. Some file formats are Little Endian; some are Big. So even if our Arabic Numeral system is backward in respect to our alphabet, it’s served us pretty well over the years. After all, these are the numbers that took us from the Renaissance to the Information Age. It doesn’t matter if you start with the big end or the small end of the number. Either way it works.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer, photographer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at http://steve-lovelace.com.

You may also like...

9 Responses

  1. Jenny says:

    Fascinating….I wonder if the scribes for the ancient written languages were often left handed as writing right to left would favor that.

  1. December 30, 2012

    […] forward through fifteen minutes of closing credits, you’ll find the year written in normal Arabic Numerals (“© 2012″). Likewise, most antique clocks used Roman Numerals, but most modern clocks […]

  2. December 31, 2012

    […] alphabet. Then there’s Star Wars. In the first film, the movie simply used Latin letters and Arabic numerals. But since George Lucas is (in)famous for going back and changing things, the 2004 re-release […]

  3. February 11, 2013

    […] to count on. The decimal system is the base behind metric measurements, and our whole system of Arabic Numerals. And it works fine for addition, subtraction and multiplication. But the decimal numeral system […]

  4. September 13, 2013

    […] for years, put me through such a rigamarole? In the end, it all comes down to one guy with an Excel spreadsheet. Some pushy debit card salesman went to AT&T and suggested that they implement a debit card […]

  5. February 13, 2014

    […] full of little yellow peppers. Of these sauces, Frank’s Red Hot is my favorite. I put it on eggs and leftover pizza. I’m also a big fan of Sriracha, that spicy pepper paste with a rooster on […]

  6. March 13, 2014

    […] stores put the things you want most, like restrooms, as far from the door as possible. Milk and eggs in particular are a trek to get to. Supermarkets have been putting these staples in the far back […]

  7. August 2, 2016

    […] of a much larger disease. In all likelihood, every other ingredient has gone through the same speadsheet. Pretty soon, the overall quality has gone down, and the entire business has gone to hell. I […]

  8. April 5, 2017

    […] for Apple’s platform. Most notably, they made Microsoft Office applications like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Steve Jobs realized that, if Gates and company ever discontinued Office for the […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *