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The History of Algebra

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia

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Various derivations of the word "algebra," which is of Arabian origin, have been given by different writers. The first mention of the word is to be found in the title of a work by Mahommed ben Musa al-Khwarizmi (Hovarezmi), who flourished about the beginning of the 9th century. The full title is ilm al-jebr wa'l-muqabala, which contains the ideas of restitution and comparison, or opposition and comparison, or resolution and equation, jebr being derived from the verb jabara, to reunite, and muqabala, from gabala, to make equal. (The root jabara is also met with in the word algebrista, which means a "bone-setter," and is still in common use in Spain.) The same derivation is given by Lucas Paciolus (Luca Pacioli), who reproduces the phrase in the transliterated form alghebra e almucabala, and ascribes the invention of the art to the Arabians.

Other writers have derived the word from the Arabic particle al (the definite article), and gerber, meaning "man." Since, however, Geber happened to be the name of a celebrated Moorish philosopher who flourished in about the 11th or 12th century, it has been supposed that he was the founder of algebra, which has since perpetuated his name. The evidence of Peter Ramus (1515-1572) on this point is interesting, but he gives no authority for his singular statements. In the preface to his Arithmeticae libri duo et totidem Algebrae (1560) he says: "The name Algebra is Syriac, signifying the art or doctrine of an excellent man. For Geber, in Syriac, is a name applied to men, and is sometimes a term of honour, as master or doctor among us. There was a certain learned mathematician who sent his algebra, written in the Syriac language, to Alexander the Great, and he named it almucabala, that is, the book of dark or mysterious things, which others would rather call the doctrine of algebra. To this day the same book is in great estimation among the learned in the oriental nations, and by the Indians, who cultivate this art, it is called aljabra and alboret; though the name of the author himself is not known." The uncertain authority of these statements, and the plausibility of the preceding explanation, have caused philologists to accept the derivation from al and jabara. Robert Recorde in his Whetstone of Witte (1557) uses the variant algeber, while John Dee (1527-1608) affirms that algiebar, and not algebra, is the correct form, and appeals to the authority of the Arabian Avicenna.

Although the term "algebra" is now in universal use, various other appellations were used by the Italian mathematicians during the Renaissance. Thus we find Paciolus calling it l'Arte Magiore; ditta dal vulgo la Regula de la Cosa over Alghebra e Almucabala. The name l'arte magiore, the greater art, is designed to distinguish it from l'arte minore, the lesser art, a term which he applied to the modern arithmetic. His second variant, la regula de la cosa, the rule of the thing or unknown quantity, appears to have been in common use in Italy, and the word cosa was preserved for several centuries in the forms coss or algebra, cossic or algebraic, cossist or algebraist, &c. Other Italian writers termed it the Regula rei et census, the rule of the thing and the product, or the root and the square. The principle underlying this expression is probably to be found in the fact that it measured the limits of their attainments in algebra, for they were unable to solve equations of a higher degree than the quadratic or square.

Franciscus Vieta (Francois Viete) named it Specious Arithmetic, on account of the species of the quantities involved, which he represented symbolically by the various letters of the alphabet. Sir Isaac Newton introduced the term Universal Arithmetic, since it is concerned with the doctrine of operations, not affected on numbers, but on general symbols.

Notwithstanding these and other idiosyncratic appellations, European mathematicians have adhered to the older name, by which the subject is now universally known.

Continued on page two.

This document is part of an article on Algebra from the 1911 edition of an encyclopedia, which is out of copyright here in the U.S. The article is in the public domain, and you may copy, download, print and distribute this work as you see fit.

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