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Al-Khorezmiy - Father of the Modern Algorithm

Sr. Product Marketing Director

While first generation data warehouses managed data, the modern data warehouse provides an information service – its massively parallel processing architecture has the compute muscle to run computationally demanding analytic applications. These bring us into a mathematical world of ones and zeros, algebra and algorithms.

In our digital age we owe much to Brahmagupta, an Indian mathematician who in the 7th Century CE wrote a book that formalized rules for treating zero as a number. To signify zero Brahhmagupta applied a dot, called a sunya that denoted emptiness, beneath a number. Zero became a digit in its own right by 876 CE; the first use of a round or empty notation is recorded on a wall of a temple within Chaturbhuja temple at Gwalior in India.

Scholars and traders visiting India from lands of the Middle East noted the skills of the country’s mathematicians. In Baghdad Abu Jofar Mohammed ben Musa Al-Khorezmiy al Majusi al-Katrabbuli, head of the House of Wisdom, wrote “A Book of Indian Calculus” - the first written description of arithmetic using ten digits including zero. Al-Khorezmiy (also written as al-Khwārizmī) also wrote a treatise titled “Al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī hīsāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala” that translates as “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing". Our word algebra derives from the term al-ğabr in the treatise’s title, and algorithm - a set of steps or procedures that a program follows to solve a problem – is a corruption of the Latinized version of Khorezmiy.

Because Khorezmiy lived and worked in Baghdad it would seem safe to assume he was Arabic, however as S. Frederick Starr notes in his essay Rediscovering Central Asia[1] the scholar Heinrich Suter suggests that many of the scientists working in the Arab world hailed from Central Asia, and that Khorezmiy was Turkic, born near Khiva in the country now known as Uzbekistan.

At IBM in the 1970s Don Chamberlin and Ray Boyce created SQL, the language we use to retrieve and manipulate data within relational database systems. SQL has served as the dominant language of business intelligence since data warehouses were first created the 1990s; now the commercial acceptance of massively parallel processing sees this relatively young technology joined by advance analytics – and for the value we derive from these algorithms we owe gratitude to earlier Indian and Turkic mathematicians.


[1] Published in the summer 2009 edition of the Wilson Quarterly and available as a pdf at http://www.wilsonquarterly.com/printarticle.cfm?aid=1441