For many people, the word “algorithm” evokes the arcane and inscrutable machinations of big data, big government, and big business: increasingly part of the infrastructure of the modern world, but hardly a source of practical wisdom or guidance for human affairs. But an algorithm is just a finite sequence of steps used to solve a problem, and algorithms are much broader—and older by far—than the computer. Long before algorithms were ever used by machines, they were used by people.
The word “algorithm” comes from the name of Persian mathematician al-Khwārizmī, author of a ninth-century book of techniques for doing mathematics by hand. (His book was called al-Jabr wa’l-Muqābala—and the “al-jabr” of the title in turn provides the source of our word “algebra.”) The earliest known mathematical algorithms, however, predate even al-Khwārizmī’s work: a four-thousand-year-old Sumerian clay tablet found near Baghdad describes a scheme for long division.
But algorithms are not confined to mathematics alone. When you cook bread from a recipe, you’re following an algorithm. When you knit a sweater from a pattern, you’re following an algorithm. When you put a sharp edge on a piece of flint by executing a precise sequence of strikes with the end of an antler—a key step in making fine stone tools—you’re following an algorithm. Algorithms have been a part of human technology ever since the Stone Age.
From the book Algorithms to live by Brain Christian and Tom Grifiths