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The History of Algebra, Page Two

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia


It is difficult to assign the invention of any art or science definitely to any particular age or race. The few fragmentary records, which have come down to us from past civilizations, must not be regarded as representing the totality of their knowledge, and the omission of a science or art does not necessarily imply that the science or art was unknown. It was formerly the custom to assign the invention of algebra to the Greeks, but since the decipherment of the Rhind papyrus by Eisenlohr this view has changed, for in this work there are distinct signs of an algebraic analysis. The particular problem---a heap (hau) and its seventh makes 19---is solved as we should now solve a simple equation; but Ahmes varies his methods in other similar problems. This discovery carries the invention of algebra back to about 1700 B.C., if not earlier.

It is probable that the algebra of the Egyptians was of a most rudimentary nature, for otherwise we should expect to find traces of it in the works of the Greek aeometers. of whom Thales of Miletus (640-546 B.C.) was the first. Notwithstanding the prolixity of writers and the number of the writings, all attempts at extracting an algebraic analysis from their geometrical theorems and problems have been fruitless, and it is generally conceded that their analysis was geometrical and had little or no affinity to algebra. The first extant work which approaches to a treatise on algebra is by Diophantus (q.v.), an Alexandrian mathematician, who flourished about A.D. 350. The original, which consisted of a preface and thirteen books, is now lost, but we have a Latin translation of the first six books and a fragment of another on polygonal numbers by Xylander of Augsburg (1575), and Latin and Greek translations by Gaspar Bachet de Merizac (1621-1670). Other editions have been published, of which we may mention Pierre Fermat's (1670), T. L. Heath's (1885) and P. Tannery's (1893-1895). In the preface to this work, which is dedicated to one Dionysius, Diophantus explains his notation, naming the square, cube and fourth powers, dynamis, cubus, dynamodinimus, and so on, according to the sum in the indices. The unknown he terms arithmos, the number, and in solutions he marks it by the final s; he explains the generation of powers, the rules for multiplication and division of simple quantities, but he does not treat of the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of compound quantities. He then proceeds to discuss various artifices for the simplification of equations, giving methods which are still in common use. In the body of the work he displays considerable ingenuity in reducing his problems to simple equations, which admit either of direct solution, or fall into the class known as indeterminate equations. This latter class he discussed so assiduously that they are often known as Diophantine problems, and the methods of resolving them as the Diophantine analysis (see EQUATION, Indeterminate.) It is difficult to believe that this work of Diophantus arose spontaneously in a period of general stagnation. It is more than likely that he was indebted to earlier writers, whom he omits to mention, and whose works are now lost; nevertheless, but for this work, we should be led to assume that algebra was almost, if not entirely, unknown to the Greeks.

The Romans, who succeeded the Greeks as the chief civilized power in Europe, failed to set store on their literary and scientific treasures; mathematics was all but neglected; and beyond a few improvements in arithmetical computations, there are no material advances to be recorded.

In the chronological development of our subject we have now to turn to the Orient. Investigation of the writings of Indian mathematicians has exhibited a fundamental distinction between the Greek and Indian mind, the former being pre-eminently geometrical and speculative, the latter arithmetical and mainly practical. We find that geometry was neglected except in so far as it was of service to astronomy; trigonometry was advanced, and algebra improved far beyond the attainments of Diophantus.

Continued on page three.

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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