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Memorization and Triangles

Multiplication by 2

“Beginning of the teaching, explaining to the heart, instructing the ignorant, to know all that
exists, created by Ptah, brought to being by Thoth, the sky with its features, the earth and what is
in it, the bend of the mountain, and what is washed by the primeval waters ....” So begins the
Onomasticon of Amenemipet. Egyptian children destined for the scribal class entered school at
the age of five. They had to start early because they had so much to learn. In the modern world,
we take reading for granted. We have to learn only twenty-six letters associated with a few dozen
sounds. The Egyptians had at least six hundred hieroglyphs to memorize, many of which had
multiple meanings. Students had to spend many years in the temple schools, called the houses of
life, learning to read and write. Despite its grandiose title, the Onomasticon of Amenemipet is
nothing but a list of Egyptian words grouped by meaning. Although we don’t know exactly how
the teachers used the Onomasticon, we do know that students copied texts, presumably to learn
the symbols. The list consists of 610 words. The first 62 describe natural features like the sky,
water, and earth. The next 167 words give the titles of gods, spirits, royalty, and officials. It
continues by describing people, foreign lands, towns, architecture, agriculture, and food. Another
version found on a damaged scroll also includes plants and trees. The Onomasticon of
Amenemipet is similar to most texts of the ancient world in that it doesn’t discuss its subject in
depth but rather is a mere list of information.

Even a subject as involved as medicine appears as a list of symptoms, diagnoses, and

treatments. Similarly, the papyrus of Ahmose appears, at least on the surface, to be little more
than a list of math problems. These lists suggest that education in the ancient world consisted of
a lot of rote memorization. Although much of what they learned in those days is different from
what we learn today, some things never seem to change. “One-half base times height” is perhaps
the earliest geometric formula burned into our brains. I’ve taught senior citizens who haven’t had
a math class in many decades who remember that equation even though they’ve forgotten what
it’s for. Just in case you have had a memory lapse, it’s the area of a triangle. The “base times
height” part of the equation calculates the area of a rectangle. This equation is apparent, at least
for whole numbers. If we take a 2-by-3 rectangle, we can easily see that it consists of two rows
of three 1-by-1 squares. Since a 1-by-1 square has the area 1 by definition, the total area is the
number of squares. But since two rows of three objects has 2 × 3 squares, the area is just 6, the
product of the height and the base.
The “one-half” is simply an acknowledgement that a right triangle is half a rectangle,
since the rectangle can be split in two down the diagonal.

The above argument can be made to work for any triangle, with some modification.
Because the relations are so visually clear, it’s not surprising that the Egyptians knew of this
equation. The calculation of the area of a triangle would have been trivial to an Egyptian. Their
methods of multiplication and division are based upon repeated doubling of a number. Without a
thought, they would know that double 7 is 14, but they would just as easily know that half of 14
is 7. This is called an inverse relationship. We learn to perform one operation; in this example,
double 7 is 14. To find the inverse relationship we then pose the same expression as a question,
what do we double to get 14? Of course the answer is 7. Since we reverse our knowledge of
doubling to calculate half, the two operations are inverses. Egyptians used this knowledge in
their multiplications.

For example, if we wanted half of 14, we could multiply it by ½ as follows.

Half of 14 is particularly easy since 14 is an even number. If instead we asked for half of an odd
number, like 17, the process would not be that much harder. Since 17 is 16 + 1, we can start by
taking half of 16, which is 8. We can now treat the remaining 1 separately and realize that twice
2 is 1, so half of 1 is 2. When we combine our two answers we get 8 2, which is half of 17.

The notion of breaking up 17 into 16 and 1 would be completely natural to an ancient

Egyptian. Consider the following multiplication of 17 and 3. See how the division splits 17 into
16 and 1, precisely as we did above.

This trick of breaking up a number into pieces was probably helpful to the Egyptian
students learning this method, especially when they moved on to larger numbers. It’s particularly
easy for numbers with all even digits.

Circles in the Sand

Fractions Built from Powers of 2

We don’t know what value the Egyptians used. The Babylonian culture was roughly
concurrent with that of the Egyptians, and the two did have some contact with each other. So, for
the sake of argument, we will use the Babylonian value of 3 k, which they multiplied by the
diameter to obtain an estimate for the circumference of a circle. This value of an eighth is
particularly easy in Egyptian mathematics because it can be obtained by taking half of a half of a
half. Consider the following. We start with a whole and cut it in two. Since two pieces make up a
whole, each piece is size 2.

Next we slice each of the two halves in half. This makes four pieces, giving fourths.
Finally the four fourths are each cut in half, making eight eighths.

This allows us to easily multiply by an eighth in much the same way we multiplied by a half in
the triangle problems. Consider taking an eighth of 10.

Ahmose’s Table

Doubling Fractions

Ahmose the scribe lived around three and a half thousand years ago. His name translates
into something like “Moon Born,” presumably in deference to the scribal god, Thoth. During the
fourth month of the inundation, when Egypt was covered in the waters of the Nile, Ahmose
diligently copied an ancient scroll. There was little to do until the waters receded, so it was the
perfect time to catch up on chores, like the preservation of an old papyrus.

The original scroll dated from the glorious Twelfth Dynasty, which was around the
nineteenth century BCE. The scroll was produced during a peaceful and prosperous time that
lasted about three hundred and fifty years. The educated in the national bureaucracy dominated
the local nobility of this age, thereby reducing internal power struggles. The sons of the
aristocrats were enlisted into the ranks of the educated elite, providing the nobles with a path to
success that did not involve conspiracy or rebellion. It’s perhaps no surprise that our two
principal mathematical texts both originate from around the time of the supremacy of the
intellectuals. This period stands in direct contrast to Ahmose’s day, when Egypt was split into
fragments, many of which were dominated by foreign rulers. Ahmose dates his scroll as the
thirty-third year of the reign of Apophis, a Canaanite king. Apparently even foreign kings needed
the scribes and mathematical wisdom of ancient Egypt to manage their kingdoms. A few years
after Ahmose copied his famous scroll, the Egyptian kings rebelled against their foreign masters,
and Apophis and many of the leaders of the insurrection were killed. Having finally mastered the
military technology of the outsiders, the rebels won, ushering in the last great period of Egyptian
hegemony. Ahmose’s scroll is now known as the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, named after a
modern collector who purchased it. The scroll bears the title Accurate Reckoning, the Entrance
into the Knowledge of All Existing Things and All Obscure Secrets. Modern school children
would probably be disappointed to learn that this is a title to what is only an introductory book
on fractions, but the topic is extremely important. The word “Accurate” in the title probably
refers to the use of fractions to make exact calculations. It’s not hard to see that 156⁄15 is roughly
10, but an “accurate” value is 10 d ag. Hence it is not possible to accurately calculate without
fractions. Such a skill was necessary to run a kingdom. In a world where only a few percent of
the people could read, let alone calculate, these mathematical tools would make a scribe
indispensable. What’s the first thing an ancient Egyptian would need to know about fractions? In
order to multiply or divide, an ancient scribe would need to know how to double them. This is
exactly the first subject covered in Ahmose’s papyrus. Part of this process is easy. Consider the
fraction d. We know that three of these are 1 and hence three blocks of area d is the same as one
of size 1.

If we divide each 3 in two, we get six pieces that still make up the 1 block in size. Hence, these
pieces are of size 6 and we can conclude half of 3 is 6.

We can repeat this argument for any number. For instance we could show that half of 4 is 8 and
half of 5 is 10. The pattern is simple. You just double the number under the bar to take half.

The original author of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus obviously thought that doubling
even fractions was too simple; hence, it wasn’t included in the text. Odd fractions, however,
were another matter entirely, and this is where the scroll begins.

Let’s consider 2 x 5. The trick to finding the value of this multiplication is to understand
that it’s a division problem. Imagine you’re an Egyptian craftsman and you know that one loaf of
bread is being divided up between five workers. You don’t need a scribe to determine that you
get a fifth; in other words, 5 of a loaf. The next day you don’t see how much bread is being
distributed but the scribe hands you two pieces of bread, each 5 in size. So you received a fifth
twice, or 2 x 5. You realize that since you have twice as much bread as you did on the first day,
the scribe must have started out with twice as much bread today. Since yesterday he had one loaf
of bread, today he started with two loaves of bread. Hence he divided two loaves between five
workers, so your share is 2 / 5. Clearly this means that 2 x 5 = 2 / 5. In general, twice any
fraction is the solution to 2 divided by the number under the fraction bar.

Ahmose’s papyrus begins by dividing 2 by all the odd numbers from 3 to 101, and hence
it is in essence a table of 2 times an odd number. But it’s much more than a table since it justifies
each division with a multiplication. For example, when it tells us that 2 / 5 is d ag, it immediately
multiplies d ag by 5, showing that the result is 2. For simplicity, we will use a condensed table.
If we need to know what 2 ¸ 11 is, we could simply look down the first column until we hit aa,
look to the right, and find our solution of h hh. This table also appears in the Computation
Tables at the beginning of the book. You will need it when you do Egyptian math, so feel free to
copy it for your own personal use and keep it handy.
Pyramids and Seked

Row Switching

The pharaoh Sneferu had a big problem. It seems that the pyramid for the founder of the
Fourth Dynasty was falling down while it was under construction. This was a relatively new
problem because at the time, the pyramids were only half a century old. Before that time, a
pharaoh was buried in a mastaba, a rectangular building over an underground tomb.

In the Third Dynasty, Imhotep, vizier to the pharaoh Djoser, had had an inspired idea. By
essentially stacking mastabas of decreasing size, he oversaw the construction of the first
Egyptian pyramid, which served as a physical recreation of the primordial mound, where the
universe was created at the dawn of time. It also served as a ramp by which the deceased pharaoh
was to ascend to the heavens. By choosing to build it out of limestone instead of the mud brick of
the mastabas, Imhotep set into motion the building of monuments that have survived the four-
and-a-half-thousand-year journey to the present. For his efforts, Imhotep was deified, becoming
a god of wisdom and healing.

About fifty years later, Sneferu made an improvement to Imhotep’s innovation. Why not
make the sides of the pyramids flat? So he began construction of his Shining Pyramid of the
South. The workers were instructed to slant the walls at an angle that the Egyptians referred to as
a seked of five. However, when they were about half done, the pyramid began to fall apart. But

Consider an hourglass. As the sand falls, it piles up in a cone shape. As the grains
continue to accumulate, the cone gets larger but the slope of the side essentially remains the
same. Because of the material they’re made of, the grains have a natural angle of accumulation.
You may think that a many-ton block of limestone is a little more stable than a grain of sand, but
you would be wrong. We perceive the stone block as strong because it’s immune to the forces we
typically encounter. However, stack a few million similar blocks on top of it, and the forces they
generate can push it aside as easily as you can blow sand from your hand.

Sneferu’s pyramid was just a little too steep, and the laws of physics began to kick in. In
order to rectify the situation, the architects needed to increase the seked, which, as we will see, is
equivalent to lowering the slope. They raised it to just under 7 2. This alteration has led modern
archaeologists to call the Shining Pyramid of the South, the Bent Pyramid. Apparently not
satisfied, Sneferu had another pyramid built entirely with a seked of approximately 7 2, and
eventually he built a fourth with a seked of exactly 5 2, almost the steepest such a pyramid can
be and not crumble.

Today we calculate slope using the mnemonic “rise over run.” Consider the half pyramid
pictured below

Notice that it has a height of 4 units and a width of 5. We would declare the rise to be 4
and the run to be 5. Then rise over run would be 4 over 5, or equivalently, 4/5, which is the

The Egyptian seked is similar to our slope but instead of using rise over run, the
Egyptians started with run over rise. So our slope of 4⁄5 would be interpreted as 5⁄4. The
Egyptians took an extra step and multiplied the run over rise by 7. I will tell you shortly where
this number comes from. On the surface, this seems like an unusual step, unnecessarily
complicating the value; however, this view stems from our shallow understanding of the concept
of slope.

Our first encounter with slope usually occurs in grade school in reference to x-y graphs.
In these classes we are taught equations to find the slope, use it to graph lines, and so on. To
most students slope is an abstract concept, never extending beyond their graph paper.

However, slope has a very important real-world interpretation. Consider the fair
exchange of dimes and nickels. We can exchange 1 dime for 2 nickels. We can express this as a
pair of numbers starting with the number of dimes followed by the equivalent number of nickels
(1,2). We can depict this pair by drawing a point one square over and two up from the bottom
left of a graph. Similarly we can change 2 dimes for 4 nickels and plot (2,4) on our graph. We
can then draw a line though these two points. This line will cross through every point
representing a fair exchange. For example, if the diagram below were extended, the line would
run through (5,10), telling us that 5 dimes is 10 nickels. If we calculate the rise and run of the
line between the two points, we get 2 and 1. This gives us a slope of 2⁄1, which is 2.

Although it’s not too difficult to calculate the slope by examining a graph, the work we
did above was completely unnecessary. We’re exchanging dimes for nickels and we know there
are 2 nickels per dime. Therefore the slope is 2. Think about how we found the slope above. We
looked at the relation between two points. The horizontal move of 1 represents 1 dime. The
corresponding vertical move of 2 represents the 2 nickels we get for the 1 dime. When we divide
2 nickels by 1 dime, we are calculating how many nickels we get per dime.

This works for any slope. If we were to graph inches on the vertical axis and feet
horizontally, the slope would be 12 since there are 12 inches per foot.

“Per” is the operative word in slopes. Every time you see this word in a quantitative
context, you’re considering slope. For example, miles per hour, seconds per minute, and dollars
per yen can all be viewed as the slopes of different graphs. When we try to interpret the Egyptian
seked, we must realize that they’re measuring something per something else.
Consider a pyramid with slope of one-half. Every unit up the pyramid one goes, one
moves over two units. In order to find the seked, we divide the run by the rise and then multiply
our answer by seven. This gives (2⁄1) x 7, which gives a seked of 14.

To understand this value, we have to know something about Egyptian units of length. A
cubit is roughly the typical distance from one’s elbow to the tips of one’s fingers. A palm is the
width of the palm of a hand. The Egyptian measurement system had 6 palms in a cubit. This is
roughly accurate. My palm is about 3.4 inches across. My “cubit” is about 20 inches long. When
we multiply 3.4 by 6 we get 20.4 inches, which is essentially what the Egyptians said it should

A royal cubit is 7 palms in length. Why did the pharaohs need their cubits longer than
those of the common people? Perhaps they were built like orangutans, or perhaps it’s just an
elitist thing. In any case, when building the pyramids, royal cubits were used to construct the
royal tomb.

Now imagine you’re a worker positioning a new 1-cubit block on the next level of a half-
built pyramid. You need to know how far back you should push the block to keep the pyramid at
14 seked. Consider the diagram below. The top left corner of the block must be right on the slope
of the pyramid’s slanted edge. We can see from our diagram that the block needs to be pushed
back 2 cubits in order to make this happen. The block needs to be positioned precisely, so we
probably want to measure this distance in a smaller unit. The Egyptians used palms. So the 2
cubits becomes 2 x 7 = 14 palms. This is precisely the seked of the pyramid.
If the block were 2 cubits high, it would have to go back twice as far, hence 28 palms
back. The ancient scribe could easily calculate this by multiplying the height of the block by the
seked of the pyramid, obtaining 2 x 14, or 28, palms. Notice that it’s 14 palms across per cubit
up. The “per” is precisely why we can think of seked as a slope.

In Ahmose’s scroll, we’re introduced to seked in a problem to find the slope of a given pyramid.
Let’s do a similar problem. Consider a pyramid of height 20 and base of 42. The first step is to
find the rise and run of the slope. Ahmose accomplished this by arithmetically splitting the
pyramid in half, dividing the base by 2. This gives a rise of 20 and a run of 21.

The next step in calculating the seked is to divide the run by the rise of the pyramid. The division
of 21 by 20 starts as follows:

Note that we only need 1 more to reach 21. If we divide 20 by 2 repeatedly, we get 10, 5,
2 2, and 1 4. We will not get 1. We could keep dividing by 2, getting 2 8, 4 16 dan 8 dan 32, but
we would not be able to get these pieces to add up to 1, and the division would get uglier and

The Egyptians had a trick up their sleeve that I’ll refer to as “switching.” They returned
to the top line and switched the 1 and the 20. In doing so they put a bar over each. Note that a is
just 1.
Finally we have to multiply by 7 in order to convert to palms.

We can use the above switching method to perform any integer division. Consider the
following division of 32 by 5. You proceed doubling until you are about to exceed the number
over the second column. Then you determine how much you’re short, switch the first row to get
a 1 in the second column, and then double it to obtain the remainder. Remember you will have to
use a copy of the doubling of odd fractions that can be found in the previous section and in the
Computation Tables at the beginning of the book.