The Story Behind Algorithm

We think of an algorithm as something new but the term dates back about 900 years. Eponyms something that is named after someone algorithm. The word “algorithm” comes from the name of the Persian mathematical genius Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khawarizmi.

Al-Khawarizmi was born around 780 AD in the region now known as Uzbekistan. His name suggests he came from Khawarizm. He was known as al-Khawarizmi, he was Director in the House of Wisdom an intellectual Centre for Scholars in 9th century Baghdad. He made innovative contributions to mathematics, astronomy, geography, and cartography. And wrote an influential book called Concerning the Hindu Art of Reckoning. Three hundred years later, the book was rediscovered and translated into Latin. It introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals to the West, which eventually replaced the unwieldy Roman ones.

The Indo-Arabic number system, along with the decimal point both described by al-Khawarizmi in his book is the basis of the numbers we use throughout the world today.

Al-Khawarizmi’s name, when Latinised in the title of the book, became Algorithmi. We also have al-Khawarizmi to thank for the word algebra which comes from another of his works. His books revolutionized mathematics in the West, showing how complex problems could be broken down into simple parts and solved.

In Medieval Latin, algorisms simply meant the decimal number system. By the 13th century, it had become an English word and was used, for example by Chaucer. But it wasn’t until the later 19th century that algorithm came to mean a set of step-by-step rules for solving a problem.

In the early part of 20th century Alan Turing the British mathematician and computer scientist worked out how, in theory, a machine could follow algorithmic instructions and solve complex mathematics. This was the birth of the computer age. During World War II he built a machine called Bombe which used an algorithm to crack the Enigma Code.

Today, the algorithm is a fairly common term if sometimes we use not exactly sure what an algorithm does. The algorithm is everywhere now helping to get us from A to B driving, internet searches, making recommendations of things to buy, watch, or share and predicting how we vote or who we fall in love with. This little word that originated in medieval Persia, is gradually transforming our lives.

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