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:
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.