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Math and History: Problem Solving

Math and History: Problem Solving

The House of Wisdom, a center for study and research located in Baghdad, was founded by the caliph Al-ma'-mùn in the 9th century. Scholars there studied subjects such as mathematics, astronomy and mechanics, and translated ancient Greek scientific texts. One of the most prominent scholars of the House of Wisdom was mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi. It was here that al-Khwarizmi wrote a book titled Al-jabr wa'l muqabala from which the modern word "Algebra" is derived. In his book al-Khwarizmi detailed step-by-step problem solving techniques which were later called algorithms in the English language. The word algorithm is derived from the Latin translation of al-Khwarizmi's name. Al-Khwarizmi also made significant contributions to astronomy, the Jewish calendar, and the Hindu system of numeration.

Computer programmers commonly use the word algorithm to describe the procedures that computers follow. This is due to the fact that algorithms are essentially a set of instructions, much like those presented by al-Khwarizmi.

Ada Byron Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron, the daughter of poet Lord Byron, in 1815, and is credited with writing the first computer program. At an early age, Ada Byron's mother recognized and encouraged Ada's mathematical talent. Being from a wealthy and prestigous family, Ada was exposed to people of influence and intellect. One such person was Mary Somerville, whom Ada met when she was 17 years old. During a dinner party at Mary Somerville's home, Ada overheard a conversation about Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and scientist who was attempting to construct a calculating machine called the Difference Engine. Ada began a lengthy correspondence with Babbage, which contained her own thoughts and ideas as they related to Babbage's machine. Her letters to Babbage included predictions that one day computing machines would be used to compose music, produce graphics, and have widespread practical and scientific applications. Her predictions were all correct.

During one of their correspondences, Ada described how another of Babbage's machines called the Analytical Engine could be used to perform a certain calculation. Ada's plan for the Analytical Engine is considered to be the first computer program. Although the Analytical Engine was never built, its key concepts, such as the capacity to store instructions, use punched cards as memory devices, and print, can be found in today's computers. In honor of her work, the U.S. Department of Defense developed a procedural programming language called Ada.

In 1954, John Backus and a team from IBM developed FORTRAN, the first high-level programming language. FORTRAN stands for FORmula TRANslation. FORTRAN and its many variations are still in use today.

Today, a large assortment of programming languages exists. Some examples include COBAL, LISP, PROLOG, BASIC, PASCAL, C, C++, and JAVA. Programming languages fall under classifications such as assembly language, functional language, logic language and object-oriented language.

You can get more information about Math and History from the following Web sites:

The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive hosted by the School of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at the University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife, Scotland.

Famous Problems in the History of Mathematics , part of The Math Forum , hosted by Swarthmore College.

The History of Mathematics , hosted by Dublin's Trinity College School of Mathematics, maintained by Dr. David R. Wilkins.