Register for an account


Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.


Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

The Sciences

Ancient Times Table on Bamboo Strips

The world's earliest known decimal multiplication table is over 2,300 years old.

By Connor WaltersNovember 26, 2014 6:00 AM
The Tsinghua table places factors across the top row and down the far right column. From left to right, or from bottom to top, respectively, the values are ½, 1, 2 . . . 9, then 10, 20 . . . 90. The rest of the table shows the products of these factors. | Research and Conservation Centre for Excavated Text/Tsinghua University


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

By cleaning away mold from a set of 21 ancient bamboo strips, researchers have revealed a mathematical surprise: the world’s oldest decimal multiplication table. Unlike the times tables that Western schoolchildren memorize, the bamboo table even multiplies fractions.

The bamboo strips are part of a roughly 2,500-strip collection that dates to 300 B.C., before China was unified. In January 2014, historians and paleogeographers at China’s Tsinghua University announced that the calligraphy on them forms a matrix with rows and columns of numbers from ½ to 90 that, like modern multiplication tables, yield a mathematical product where they intersect.

Bureaucrats and businessmen would have used the table to quickly tally payrolls or taxes. No other ancient civilization multiplied numbers in this way, says paleogeographer Wen Xing of Dartmouth College: “It is an amazing discovery.”

[This article originally appeared in print as "The Bamboo Calculator."]

3 Free Articles Left

Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.


Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 50%


Already a subscriber? Register or Log In