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The Oldest Math Problems... Where Are Stored and How Old?

Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. British Museum

The Rhind Papyrus is named after the Scottish Egyptologist A. Henry Rhind, who purchased it in Luxor in 1858. The papyrus, a scroll about 6 metres long and 1/3 of a metre wide, was written around 1650 BC by the scribe Ahmes who was copying a document which is 200 years older. When it arrived at the British Museum, it was shorter and in 2 pieces with a central part missing. The eighty-seven problems on the Rhind deal with a large variety of subjects including methods of multiplying and dividing, the use of unit fractions, simple equations, the use of false position, calculations of areas and volumes, progressions and many other applications.


When describing the Rhind, it is important to note that is not merely a collection of maths problems or even an ancient maths book with explanations, general information and tables. It encompasses both of these but with its own added style. The Egyptians' use of exclusively unit fractions (fractions with 1 in the numerator) was one of the document's trade marks, and this necessitated a table in the first section of 2 divided by odd numbers ranging from 3 to 101. Multiplications and divisions were performed by a succession of doubling operations, based on the fact that any number can be represented as a sum of powers of 2.


The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus is an ancient Egyptian mathematical papyrus, also called the Golenischev Mathematical Papyrus, after its first owner, Egyptologist Vladimir Golenishchev. Golenichev bought the papyrus in 1892 or 1893 in Thebes. It later entered the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, where it remains today.


Based on the palaeography and orthography of the hieratic text, the text was most likely written down in the 13th dynasty and based on older material probably dating to the Twelfth dynasty of Egypt, roughly 1850 BC. Approximately 18 feet long and varying between 1 and 3 inches wide, its format was divided into 25 problems with solutions by the Soviet Orientalist Vasily Vasilievich Struve in 1930 It is a well-known mathematical papyri along with the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus is older than the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, while the latter is the larger of the two.

"Chance favors the prepared mind." - Louis Pasteur