History Behind the Basic Mathematical Signs (Plus, Minus, Multiplication and Division)


“Mathematics is the most beautiful and most powerful creation of the human spirit.”

— Stefan Banach

“Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to the different things.”

- Henri Poincare  


Not only these two, but almost every scientist in the world also has made a lot of speeches on mathematics. They had no way. Even we have no way but to live with mathematics. Mathematical signs like plus/addition, minus/subtraction, multiplication, division, equals to helped the math to be expressed in an easier way. This article is on the history of these four signs/symbols.

History Behind the Basic Mathematical Signs

It is true that long before the introduction of the sign, the work of that sign was present. But in that case, it took more time and effort to put the whole process in black and white. So, mathematicians started using symbols for the purpose of preventing waste of time. For example, how easy it is for us to add 2 and 3 to write "2 + 3". But when this plus sign did not originate, it had to be written, "Add 2 to number 3".


The plus sign is the symbol that is used to count two or more numbers together. The process of adding something called addition. The word ‘addition’ comes from the Latin word Plus, which means more. The origin of the plus sign was from the Latin "Et". This is replaced by the + sign. As far as is known, the use of ‘+’ as a plus sign began in the fourteenth century. ‘Nicholas Oresme’ is known to have used the ‘+’ sign for the first time in his work ‘Algorismus Proportionum’.

But at that time, it was not universally being used. Many other signs/symbols were by many. For example, the Italian mathematician ‘Luca Passioli’ used the signs added in the photo below to declare plus and minus. The ‘+’ symbol started to be used widely when the German mathematician Johannes Weidmann used this symbol in his ‘Mercantile Arithmetic’.

Lucas Pacioli's used plus and minus
He used these as plus and minus


Subtraction is the process of excluding something from a total. The word subtract originates from the Latin word ‘minus’ which means less. However, it is not clearly known from when the use of ‘-’ as the sign to subtract began. Subtraction became widely used shortly after its use in Johannes Weidmann's ‘Mercantile Arithmetic'.


7×2 or 7∙2, these two symbols are widely used as multiplication at present. Although the second has a different use as a dot product, the first is more commonly used to mean general multiplication. The use of the × symbol began in the sixteenth century. It is said that the English mathematician 'William' was the first to use this symbol. However, it is not certain exactly why the multiplication process is marked by this (x). Some say it was used from St. Andrew's Cross.

But not everyone accepted this. The reason was, it coincides with the English x, the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried rejected this symbol and used only one dot, which is still very common and is widely used as a cross-product sign.


We see the use of many symbols as divisive symbols even in this time. The main types are being mentioned in the photo below.

Division Sign
Various signs used as division

The use of the last-mentioned type probably was the first, even before the thirteenth century. Though it is said that this was first used by the Muslims, its use became widespread in the sixteenth century after the European mathematician Fibonacci used it in the sixteenth century. De Morgan proposed a ‘/’ sign to be used as the division sign. The use of ‘/’ as a division sign is currently recognized as the standard.

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