Archive for History of Exact Sciences

, Volume 68, Issue 1, pp 1–34 | Cite as

Geometric division problems, quadratic equations, and recursive geometric algorithms in Mesopotamian mathematics

  • Jöran FribergEmail author


Most of what is told in this paper has been told before by the same author, in a number of publications of various kinds, but this is the first time that all this material has been brought together and treated in a uniform way. Smaller errors in the earlier publications are corrected here without comment. It has been known since the 1920s that quadratic equations played a prominent role in Babylonian mathematics. See, most recently, Høyrup (Hist Sci 34:1–32, 1996, and Lengths, widths, surfaces: a portrait of old Babylonian algebra and its kin. Springer, New York, 2002). What has not been known, however, is how quadratic equations came to play that role, since it is difficult to think of any practical use for quadratic equations in the life and work of a Babylonian scribe. One goal of the present paper is to show how the need to find solutions to quadratic equations actually arose in Mesopotamia not later than in the second half of the third millennium BC, and probably before that in connection with certain geometric division of property problems. This issue was brought up for the first time in Friberg (Cuneiform Digit Lib J 2009:3, 2009). In this connection, it is argued that the tool used for the first exact solution of a quadratic equation was either a clever use of the “conjugate rule” or a “completion of the square,” but that both methods ultimately depend on a certain division of a square, the same in both cases. Another, closely related goal of the paper is to discuss briefly certain of the most impressive achievements of anonymous Babylonian mathematicians in the first half of the second millennium BC, namely recursive geometric algorithms for the solution of various problems related to division of figures, more specifically trapezoidal fields. For an earlier, comprehensive (but less accessible) treatment of these issues, see Friberg (Amazing traces of a Babylonian origin in Greek mathematics. WorldScientific, Singapore 2007b, Ch. 11 and App. 1).


Quadratic Equation Parallel Side Rational Side Mathematical Text School Text 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Chalmers University of TechnologyGothenburgSweden

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