How did algebra come to be?  

When were prime numbers discovered?  

How is math education different now from, say, in President Abraham Lincoln’s day?

A new online exhibition sheds light on math’s long history.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the National Museum of Mathematics in New York and tech company Wolfram Research and was funded by the Overdeck Family Foundation. It features over 70 artifacts and goes back a whopping 4,000 years to the earliest days of counting and computation.

Math’s history tracks to that of civilization. As human societies became more complex, so did mathematics, which helped our ancestors keep tabs on things such as livestock, debts and time.

One of the oldest artifacts, a mathematical table from 2600 B.C., probably helped ancient Sumerians make complex measurements of their fields.

An eighth-century manuscript by the Venerable Bede, an English monk, documents how ancient Romans were able to count up to 1,000 with only their fingers.

And an 1824 document by a young Lincoln shows how children of his day learned math. He used intricate script to write in a ciphering book, which was kept by students of the day to progress through the entirety of their mathematics education. Young Lincoln practiced everything from multiplication to compound interest in the pages of his book.

Each artifact comes with interactive content. For example, visitors to the virtual museum can learn how Lincoln checked his math using a technique known as “casting out nines” or discover more about the cuneiform symbols the Sumerians used to calculate area.

Rounding out the exhibition are “learning journeys”: interactive lessons that guide users through everything from ancient counting techniques to games of chance that demonstrate basic concepts of probability.

Whether you come to try your hand at some ancient math homework or to enjoy imagery from artifacts from around the world, you’ll come away with a greater appreciation of how math developed — and how much modern math owes to our brainy ancestors.

Visit the museum at History-of-Mathematics.org