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  • BBC
  • 60 mins
  • United Kingdom
  • Documentary

The story of the number 1 is the story of Western civilisation. Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, goes on a humour-filled journey to discover just what an amazing tale lies behind the simplest number we have. Using Pythonesque computer graphics, 1 is brought to life in all its various guises.

The first number 1 dates from 20,000 years ago. Then 6000 years ago the Sumerians turned 1 into a cone-shaped and written symbol that made arithmetic - and trade - possible. 1000 years later in Egypt, 1 million was used for the first time, and formal 'measurement' was invented as Egyptians created their own definition of 1 - the Cubit.

In Ancient Greece, Pythagoras and Archimedes worked with 1 intensively, becoming two of history's most important mathematicians. But after they died, the Romans - who had no time for mathematical theorems - started using '1' simply as a basic tool for imposing order. Roman numerals dominated Europe for the next 2000 years, before being wiped out by Indian numbers.

Although the symbols for 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 and 0 originated in India, it wasn't until they were picked up by the Muslim world that they really took hold. The Arabs took these numbers to Europe, where they met fierce resistance for 500 years, but the battle between Roman and Indian numbers was finally resolved in the 16th century when Indian numbers triumphed.

Because of this development, within a hundred years German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz had invented binary, a system that uses only 1 and zero. Since then, as the language of computers, these two digits have dominated every part of our modern lives. Without 1 and zero, today's world would be a very different place.

1 episode

1x01 The Story of 1

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