Historical notes

Adelard of Bath

Adelard of Bath was a medieval mathematician and natural philosopher, and a crucial figure in the development of early European thought. Just as the company Adelard seeks the widespread adoption of a better notation for the description of computer software, so Adelard of Bath was a major influence in the revolutionary adoption of the Arabic notation for numbers instead of the intractable Roman numerals.

An illuminated image from the 1400s of Adelard of Bath

He was a pioneer of the scientific renaissance of the 12th century, when the learning of the Ancient Greeks, which had been preserved by the Islamic countries, was reintroduced into Europe along with ideas from Arabic medicine, mathematics and astronomy. He studied in Syria and Turkey, and returned to Europe an enthusiastic promoter not only of Arabic knowledge but also the Arabic tradition of rational scientific inquiry. The academic establishment, lazing in idle reverence for the accepted authorities of the day, suddenly had to face his wry accusations of gullibility and his calls for experiment, observation and innovation.

His writings include speculation that animals must have souls because they possess the power of judgement, and the first known account of the distillation of alcohol. But his most influential works were on mathematics. He translated Euclid's Elements - still the basis of much of today's mathematics - from Arabic into Latin, the international language of European scholarship. He was also the author of a Latin version of a treatise on Arabic arithmetic by al-Khwarizmi, the great Saracen mathematician whose name, corrupted to algorism, became the European word for the new system of numbers.

By the end of the 12th century the academic world was divided between the algorists, followers of al-Khwarizmi, and the abacists, who used the abacus as a means of dealing with the unwieldy Roman notation. The controversy raged for another century before, thanks to the champions of progressive thought, the Arabic numerals triumphed to become the system we use today.