The History of Algebra

How old is algebra?

Have you ever been taught about the history of algebra and its importance to science and engineering?  Well, if you haven’t then it's time that you get a glimpse of the history of algebra so you'll understand where it comes from and why it is important.  The history of algebra goes way back in time (more than 4000 years) but its importance is unparalleled by any other branch of mathematics. Why learn the history of algebra? It is important to know the history in order to know the present status of modern day mathematics. 

Everyone knows that Albert Einstein was one of the greatest scientists ever to have lived. Well, a few people might know that the history of algebra played a key role in many of Einstein’s great mathematical theories. So if you are dreaming to become the next Einstein of the 21st century, make sure that you learn the history of algebra along with the fundamentals of mathematics. Of course, that's just an extreme example. No matter who you are, it always helps to know a little something about what you do. So lets study a brief history of algebra.

Nobody can advance to higher mathematics without mastering the basics of algebra.  Of course, you first need a good knowledge of arithmetic and logic to master algebra. However, algebra is the fundamental language of math that actually allows you to "do" anything. Most high school students are familiar with the name “Calculus” as something to dread. However, with a firm grasp of algebra there is nothing to fear in learning calculus because you can learn it in the same way that you learned algebra. The history of algebra is split into two basic kinds of algebra. One is called Classical Algebra (finding unknown numbers) and another is called Modern, or Abstract Algebra (studying rings, fields-space & time). 

Classical algebra was first developed by the ancient Babylonians, who had a system similar to our algebra. They were able to solve for unknown quantities (variables) and had formulas and equations. This may seem elementary, but many advanced civilizations solved such problems geometrically because it was more visual. This is similar to the idea of graphing two linear equations to see where they intersect rather than directly solving for the solution. The Chinese began to publish their own algebra writings around 100 BC.

Modern Algebra has come into existence much more recently, emerging over the past 200 years. This is a very complicated study of abstract ideas that are useful for mathematicians and scientists. It also includes some more basic topics like boolean algebra and matrix multiplication. Modern day physics and quantum physics rely heavily on the new concepts of modern, or abstract, algebra. 

The word “Algebra” literally means the re-union of broken parts based on the origins of Arabic language. It was first used around 800AD by Arabic scholars, and is still in our language today. Once even the basics of algebra were only studied by advanced mathematicians and scientists in ancient civilizations, but now it is taught routinely to 7th and 8th graders.

If you would like to really get an in-depth history of algebra, check out the Wikipedia entry. They have a nice timeline of the history of algebra as well. Of course, there are many other sites that can help you learn about the history of algebra.