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Sexagesimal (base 60) is a numeral system with sixty as its base. It originated with the ancient Sumerians in the 3rd millennium BC, was passed down to the ancient Babylonians, and is still used—in a modified form—for measuring time, angles, and geographic coordinates.

The number 60, a superior highly composite number, has twelve factors, namely 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60, of which 2, 3, and 5 are prime numbers. With so many factors, many fractions involving sexagesimal numbers are simplified. For example, one hour can be divided evenly into sections of 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 12 minutes, 10 minutes, 6 minutes, 5 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute. 60 is the smallest number that is divisible by every number from 1 to 6; that is, it is the lowest common multiple of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

It is possible for people to count on their fingers to 12 using one hand only, with the thumb pointing to each finger bone on the four fingers in turn. A traditional counting system still in use in many regions of Asia works in this way, and could help to explain the occurrence of numeral systems based on 12 and 60 besides those based on 10, 20 and 5. In this system, one hand (usually right) counts repeatedly to 12, displaying the number of iterations on the other (usually left), until five dozens, i. e. the 60, are full.

According to Otto Neugebauer, the origins of sexagesimal are not as simple, consistent, or singular in time as they are often portrayed. Throughout their many centuries of use, which continues today for specialized topics such as time, angles, and astronomical coordinate systems, sexagesimal notations have always contained a strong undercurrent of decimal notation, such as in how sexagesimal digits are written. Their use has also always included (and continues to include) inconsistencies in where and how various bases are to represent numbers even within a single text.

The most powerful driver for rigorous, fully self-consistent use of sexagesimal has always been its mathematical advantages for writing and calculating fractions. In ancient texts this shows up in the fact that sexagesimal is used most uniformly and consistently in mathematical tables of data. Another practical factor that helped expand the use of sexagesimal in the past even if less consistently than in mathematical tables, was its decided advantages to merchants and buyers for making everyday financial transactions easier when they involved bargaining for and dividing up larger quantities of goods. The early shekel in particular was one-sixtieth of a mana, though the Greeks later coerced this relationship into the more base-10 compatible ratio of a shekel being one-fiftieth of a mina.

Apart from mathematical tables, the inconsistencies in how numbers were represented within most texts extended all the way down to the most basic Cuneiform symbols used to represent numeric quantities. For example, the Cuneiform symbol for 1 was an ellipse made by applying the rounded end of the stylus at an angle to the clay, while the sexagesimal symbol for 60 was a larger oval or "big 1". But within the same texts in which these symbols were used, the number 10 was represented as a circle made by applying the round end of the style perpendicular to the clay, and a larger circle or "big 10" was used to represent 100. Such multi-base numeric quantity symbols could be mixed with each other and with abbreviations, even within a single number. The details and even the magnitudes implied (since zero was not used consistently) were idiomatic to the particular time periods, cultures, and quantities or concepts being represented. While such context-dependent representations of numeric quantities are easy to critique in retrospect, in modern time we still have "dozens" of regularly used examples (some quite "gross") of topic-dependent base mixing, including the particularly ironic recent innovation of adding decimal fractions to sexagesimal astronomical coordinates.

This page was last edited on 27 May 2018, at 17:59.
Reference: under CC BY-SA license.

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