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Publication Date

1989

Abstract

How could our ancestors do accounting while they were still illiterate and had no paper? The answer is that they used the tally and the checkerboard. In medieval Europe, the tally was normally a short stick on which notches were cut to represent numbers; different number units could be shown by notches of different sizes. The two parties to a deal could get a fraud-proof record by splitting the tally into matching "foil" and "stock" (hence our "stock market"). Counting was done by moving counters onto and off a surface ruled like a chess-board. These devices were central to medieval finance, e.g., the English exchequer issued stocks like bills of exchange. The exchequer clung to tallies long after they had become obsolete; but in 1834 it decided to destroy its tallies by burning them, and the resulting blaze destroyed Parliament too.

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