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By John Davis

It’s a pity that algebra often has such a ‘bad press’ in primary school mathematics for it gives pupils an early introduction to how mathematicians express relationships and use numbers and symbols like a shorthand version of words.



  1. The history of algebra
  2. Word problems
  3. Formulae and expressions
  4. Equations
  5. Variable unknowns
  6. Simultaneous equations
  7. Factorising and expanding

The history of algebra

Ancient mathematician

  • The word algebra has deep historical roots. It comes from the word al-jabr that is contained in the title of the most famous book written by Muhammed Al-Khwarizmi, an Arab scholar who lived in the country we now call Iraq around 800 AD.
  • The book, called Hisab al-jabr w’al muqabala (Calculation by Restoration and Reduction), contains rules to find solutions to equations but was also intended to be a highly practical document that would illustrate how algebra can be used to solve real life practical problems.

  • Although the Ancient Egyptians did not work with the concept of formal algebra, there exist examples where they considered problems involving missing numbers. These were often written out in words with the term ‘heap’ being used to represent an unknown number. The Rhind Papyrus, believed to have been written in Ancient Egypt about 1850 BC and used as a teaching manual specially written for training scribes, contains eighty-seven arithmetic and algebraic puzzles written in a shorthand version of hieroglyphics.
  • The Greek mathematician Diophantus of Alexandria is often referred to as the ‘father of algebra’. He wrote his book Arithmetica in about 250 AD. It contains a collection of 130 number problems and experts today consider it as the earliest record of an attempt to use symbols to represent unknown quantities in mathematics.

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