Why are algorithms called algorithms? It’s thanks to Persian mathematician Muhammad al-Khwarizmi who was born way back in around AD780. He was a director at the house of wisdom in 9th Century Baagdad – an intellectual centre for scholars.
He made innovative contributions to mathematics, astronomy, geography & cartography and wrote an influential book called – “Concerning the Hindu Art of Reckoning”.
300 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 Hindu-Arabic number system, along with the decimal point, both described by al-Khwarizmi in his book, are the basis of the numbers we use throughout the world today.
Al-Khwarizmi’s name, when Latinised in the title of the book, became algorithmi. This is the origin of the word algorithm.
Similarly, Algebra is derived from another of his works.
His books revolutionised mathematics in the West, showing how complex problems could be broken down into simpler parts and solved.
In medieval Latin, algorismus simply meant the decimal number system.
By 13th Century, it had become an English word and was used, for E.g., by Chaucer.
But it wasn’t until the late 19th Century
that algorithm came to mean a “set of step-by-step rules for solving a problem”.
In the early part of the 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 the Bombe,
which used algorithms to crack the Enigma code.
Today algorithm is a fairly common term,
even if sometimes you’re not exactly sure what an algorithm does.
Algorithms are everywhere now, helping us to get from Location A to B,
driving internet searches, making recommendations of things
for us 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.