The Rhind Papyrus

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What is the Rhind Papyrus?

In 1858, A. Henry Rhind bought a scroll that was 18 feet long and 13 inches high, which is now called the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. A scribe named Ahmes made this copy around 1650 or 1700 BCE (different sources are inconsistent with the date), and he copied it from a document that dated 200 years before that, making the original from around 1850 BCE. The Rhind, also called the Ahmes Papyrus, is the greatest source of information on Egyptian mathematics from that time.

Although scholars are not exactly sure what the purpose of the Rhind originally was, it seems to be a sort of guide to Ancient Egyptian mathematics. It contains 87 math problems, including equations, volumes of cylinders and prisms, and areas of triangles, rectangles, circles and trapezoids, and fractions. The Egyptians used unit fractions, which are fractions with one in the numerator, in the Rhind Papyrus. In order to simplify things, the Egyptians included an important table in the papyrus, so they could look up the answers to arithmetic problems. This table showed the number 2 divided by all the odd numbers from 3 to 101. The answers to these division problems were stated in the table as several fractions added together, although the plus signs were omitted. For example, the fraction 5/8 would have been written like this: 1/2 1/8. Addition and subtraction were accomplished in this way, but multiplication and division were a different matter. In fact, the only multiplication that the Egyptians used was with the number 2. If they wanted to multiply 17 by 4, they would have doubled 17 to get 34, and then they would have doubled 34 to get a final answer of 68. Although this method was effective it was also time consuming! Division was accomplished by successively doubling the denominator of a fraction.

The Egyptians did not know as many mathematical facts and were not as adept at performing mathematical functions as the Greeks who came a thousand years after them. However, the Rhind was used as a model for mathematics in Ancient Greece. It is clear that the civilizations that came after the Egyptians built upon the strong framework of information and mathematical processes contained in the Rhind Papyrus to develop their more advanced systems of mathematics.

A. Henry Rhind died five years after purchasing the Rhind Papyrus, and it was obtained by the British Museum. Fortunately enough for historians and mathematicians alike, large missing pieces of the Rhind were found in New York's Historical society and reunited with the other part of the papyrus. The British Museum now holds the Rhind Papyrus, with all the mysteries and answers of the ancient Egyptians, within their walls.

The Equations Found on the Rhind Papyrus