Roman Numerals

Roman Numerals

Occasionally, Roman numerals would work their way into my classes; for example, when teaching the Stock system of naming compounds in chemistry. I always assumed that students were well versed in their use, but as the years went by it became obvious that many either didn’t know the numerals or needed a refresher. I don’t know when, or even if, Roman numerals are taught in school but it seems like a somewhat useful thing to know.

But that is not what I really want to bring to your attention. I have a trivia lesson for you.

Imagine you are looking at the face of a grandfather clock. The digits appear as Roman numerals. Let’s pretend that it is four o’clock. Now look at the little hand. To what numeral is it pointing? Most will say that it is pointing to IV; however, at least four out of five times 4:00 is represented as IIII.

Apparently, clock makers are looking for symmetry. By using IIII, it off-sets the VIII representing 8 on the other side of the face. Aesthetically, it looks more balanced. Also, if IIII is used then the first four numerals have only I’s, the next four are the only ones with a V and the final four each have an X. That represents a pattern and we tend to like patterns.

The next time you look at a clock face, check it out. And if you are ever at a mathematics convention you could use, Hey, want to know why that clock behind the bar uses IIII to represent four o’clock? as a pick-up line. You might just get lucky.

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