Who Invented Algebra?

Algebra. For most of us, it is one of the banes of school life. Many see it as an adverse course, an unnecessary complication for one’s academics. It is then not rare for students to joke about their contempt for the inventor of the subject. Well, it maybe a playful joke but it does lead to an important question: who invented algebra anyway? Now, some may not pursue the thought of finding out the creator of their much-hated subject but for those who will do, it will be a fruitful exercise as it will make one realize the importance of the role that algebra played in human progress.

So who invented algebra? Most of us are accustomed with inventions having a definite inventor: a single individual, like Thomas Edison for the light bulb, or a specific group of people like Chinese for gun powder. This is not the case with algebra however. Asking who invented algebra will give you the Arabs who are widely credited for the creation of the said branch of mathematics but there are also those that believe the Babylonians are the ones that must be given credit for inventing the algebra.

But where does this rift concerning the question who invented algebra come from? As can be seen from the word itself, algebra, which comes from the Arabic al-jabr, one of the basic operations discussed in the influential book made by Arabs about the subject, Arabs contributed a lot to the subject. So much was their contribution that only through the translation of their works did the West learned much about algebra. The modern word that is algebra came into being only when the book was translated from Arabic into Latin by a Western scholar who titled the translated work Liber algebrae et almucabala.

On the other hand, one can also say that the Babylonians are the ones who invented the algebra, if only for the fact that they are the first to utilize early forms of algebraic equations. Their contribution to algebra may not be as vast as the Arabs, who literally shaped much of what algebra is today, but Babylonians were the first people to solve problems with the use of operations that can be considered as algebraic hence their contested designation as the ones who invented algebra.

Searching for and knowing the answer to the question ‘who invented algebra’ will not only lead one to the contribution of the Arabs and the Babylonians, but also to the rich history of the branch of mathematics the most of us have unfortunately come to fear and hate.