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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, it was passed down to the ancient Babylonians, and it 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, 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.

In this article, all sexagesimal digits are represented as decimal numbers, except where otherwise noted. [For example, 10 means ten and 60 means sixty.]


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, the one (usually right) hand counts repeatedly to 12, displaying the number of iterations on the other (usually left), until five dozens, i. e. the 60, are full.[1][2]

According to Otto Neugebauer, the origins of the sixty-count was through a count of three twenties. The precursor to the later six-ten alternation was through symbols for the sixths, (i.e. 1/6, 2/6, 3/6, 4/6, 5/6), coupled with decimal numbers, led to the same three-score count, and also to the division-system that the Sumerians were famous for. In normal use, numbers were a haphazard collection of units, tens, sixties, and hundreds. A number like 192, would be expressed uniformly in the tables as 3A2 (with A as the symbol for the '10') but would in the surrounding text be given as XIxxxii i.e., hundred (big 10), sixty (big 1), three tens (little 10's), two (little 1's).[3]


Babylonian mathematics

The sexagesimal system as used in ancient Mesopotamia was not a pure base-60 system, in the sense that it did not use 60 distinct symbols for its digits. Instead, the cuneiform digits used ten as a sub-base in the fashion of a sign-value notation: a sexagesimal digit was composed of a group of narrow, wedge-shaped marks representing units up to nine (Y, YY, YYY, YYYY, ... YYYYYYYYY) and a group of wide, wedge-shaped marks representing up to five tens (<, <<, <<<, <<<<, <<<<<). The value of the digit was the sum of the values of its component parts:

Babylonian numerals.svg

Numbers larger than 59 were indicated by multiple symbol blocks of this form in place value notation.

Because there was no symbol for zero in Sumerian or early Babylonian numbering systems, it is not always immediately obvious how a number should be interpreted, and its true value must sometimes have been determined by its context. Without context, this system was fairly ambiguous. For example, the symbols for 1 and 60 are identical.[4][5] Later Babylonian texts used a placeholder (Babylonian digit 0.svg) to represent zero, but only in the medial positions, and not on the right-hand side of the number, as we do in numbers like 13,200.[5]

Other historical usages

In the Chinese calendar, a sexagenary cycle is commonly used, in which days or years are named by positions in a sequence of ten stems and in another sequence of 12 branches. The same stem and branch repeat every 60 steps through this cycle.

Book VIII of Plato's Republic involves an allegory of marriage centered on the number 604 = 12,960,000 and its divisors. This number has the particularly simple sexagesimal representation 1,0,0,0,0. Later scholars have invoked both Babylonian mathematics and music theory in an attempt to explain this passage.[6]

Ptolemy's Almagest, a treatise on mathematical astronomy written in the second century AD, uses base 60 to express the fractional parts of numbers. In particular, his table of chords, which was essentially the only extensive trigonometric table for more than a millennium, has fractional parts in base 60.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Tamil astronomers were found to make astronomical calculations, reckoning with shells using a mixture of decimal and sexagesimal notations developed by Hellenistic astronomers.[7]

Base-60 number systems have also been used in some other cultures that are unrelated to the Sumerians, for example by the Ekagi people of Western New Guinea.[8][9]


In Hellenistic Greek astronomical texts, such as the writings of Ptolemy, sexagesimal numbers were written using the Greek alphabetic numerals, with each sexagesimal digit being treated as a distinct number. The Greeks limited their use of sexagesimal numbers to the fractional part of a number and employed a variety of markers to indicate a zero.[10]

In medieval Latin texts, sexagesimal numbers were written using Hindu Arabic numerals; the different levels of fractions were denoted minuta (i.e., fraction), minuta secunda, minuta tertia, etc. By the seventeenth century it became common to denote the integer part of sexagesimal numbers by a superscripted zero, and the various fractional parts by one or more accent marks. John Wallis, in his Mathesis universalis, generalized this notation to include higher multiples of 60; giving as an example the number 49````,36```,25``,15`,1°,15',25'',36''',49''''; where the numbers to the left are multiplied by higher powers of 60, the numbers to the right are divided by powers of 60, and the number marked with the superscripted zero is multiplied by 1.[11] This notation leads to the modern signs for degrees, minutes, and seconds. The same minute and second nomenclature is also used for units of time, and the modern notation for time with hours, minutes, and seconds written in decimal and separated from each other by colons may be interpreted as a form of sexagesimal notation.

In modern studies of ancient mathematics and astronomy it is customary to write sexagesimal numbers with each sexagesimal digit represented in standard decimal notation as a number from 0 to 59, and with each digit separated by a comma. When appropriate, the fractional part of the sexagesimal number is separated from the whole number part by a semicolon rather than a comma, although in many cases this distinction may not appear in the original historical document and must be taken as an interpretation of the text.[12] Using this notation the square root of two, which in decimal notation appears as 1.41421... appears in modern sexagesimal notation as 1;24,51,10....[13] This notation is used in this article.

Modern usage

Unlike most other numeral systems, sexagesimal is not used so much in modern times as a means for general computations, or in logic, but rather, it is used in measuring angles, geographic coordinates, and time.

One hour of time is divided into 60 minutes, and one minute is divided into 60 seconds. Thus, a measurement of time such as "3:23:17" (three hours, 23 minutes, and 17 seconds) can be interpreted as a sexagesimal number, meaning 3×602 + 23×601 + 17×600. As with the ancient Babylonian sexagesimal system, however, each of the three sexagesimal digits in this number (3, 23, and 17) is written using the decimal system.

Similarly, the practical unit of angular measure is the degree, of which there are 360 in a circle. There are 60 minutes of arc in a degree, and 60 arcseconds in a minute.

In some usage systems, each position past the sexagesimal point was numbered, using Latin or French roots: prime or primus, seconde or secundus, tierce, quatre, quinte, etc. To this day we call the second-order part of an hour or of a degree a "second". Until at least the 18th century, 1/60 of a second was called a "tierce" or "third".[14][15]


In the sexagesimal system, any fraction in which the denominator is a regular number (having only 2, 3, and 5 in its prime factorization) may be expressed exactly.[16] The table below shows the sexagesimal representation of all fractions of this type in which the denominator is less than 60. The sexagesimal values in this table may be interpreted as giving the number of minutes and seconds in a given fraction of an hour; for instance, 1/9 of an hour is 6 minutes and 40 seconds. However, the representation of these fractions as sexagesimal numbers does not depend on such an interpretation.

Fraction: 1/2 1/3 1/4 1/5 1/6 1/8 1/9 1/10
Sexagesimal:  30 20 15 12 10 7,30 6,40 6
Fraction: 1/12 1/15 1/16 1/18 1/20 1/24 1/25 1/27
Sexagesimal: 5 4 3,45 3,20 3 2,30 2,24 2,13,20
Fraction: 1/30 1/32 1/36 1/40 1/45 1/48 1/50 1/54
Sexagesimal: 2 1,52,30 1,40 1,30 1,20 1,15 1,12 1,6,40

However numbers that are not regular form more complicated repeating fractions. For example:

1/7 = 0;8,34,17,8,34,17 ... (with the sequence of sexagesimal digits 8,34,17 repeating infinitely many times).

The fact in arithmetic that the two numbers that are adjacent to 60, namely 59 and 61, are both prime numbers implies that simple repeating fractions that repeat with a period of one or two sexagesimal digits can only have 59 or 61 as their denominators, and that other non-regular primes have fractions that repeat with a longer period.


Babylonian tablet YBC 7289 showing the sexagesimal number 1;24,51,10 approximating √2

The square root of 2, the length of the diagonal of a unit square, was approximated by the Babylonians of the Old Babylonian Period (1900 BC – 1650 BC) as


Because is an irrational number, it cannot be expressed exactly in sexagesimal numbers, but its sexagesimal expansion does begin 1;24,51,10,7,46,6,4,44 ...

The length of the tropical year in Neo-Babylonian astronomy (see Hipparchus), 365.24579... days, can be expressed in sexagesimal as 6,5;14,44,51 (6×60 + 5 + 14/60 + 44/602 + 51/603) days. The average length of a year in the Gregorian calendar is exactly 6,5;14,33 in the same notation because the values 14 and 33 were the first two values for the tropical year from the Alfonsine tables, which were in sexagesimal notation.

The value of π as used by the Greek mathematician and scientist Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) was 3;8,30 = 3 + 8/60 + 30/602 = 377/120 ≈ 3.141666....[18] Jamshīd al-Kāshī, a 15th-century Persian mathematician, calculated π in sexagesimal numbers to an accuracy of nine sexagesimal digits; his value for 2π was 6;16,59,28,1,34,51,46,14,50.[19][20]

See also


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Additional reading

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External links