Generalized coordinates refer in analytical mechanics, specifically in the study of the rigid body dynamics of multibody systems, to parameters which describe the configuration of a physical system relative to some reference configuration. These parameters must uniquely define the configuration of the system relative to that reference configuration. It is assumed that this can be done with a single chart. Generalized velocities are the time derivatives of the generalized coordinates of the system.
- In the history of Science it is possible to find many cases in which the tendency of Mathematics to express itself in the most abstract forms has proved to be of ultimate service in the physical order of ideas. Perhaps the most striking example is to be found in the development of abstract Dynamics. The greatest treatise which the world has seen, on this subject, is Lagrange's Mécanique Analytique, published in 1788. ...conceived in the purely abstract Mathematical spirit ...Lagrange's idea of reducing the investigation of the motion of a dynamical system to a form dependent upon a single function of the generalized coordinates of the system was further developed by Hamilton and Jacobi into forms in which the equations of motion of a system represent the conditions for a stationary value of an integral of a single function. The extension by Routh and Helmholtz to the case in which "ignored co-ordinates" are taken into account, was a long step in the direction of the desirable unification which would be obtained if the notion of potential energy were removed by means of its interpretation as dependent upon the kinetic energy of concealed motions included in the dynamical system. The whole scheme of abstract Dynamics thus developed upon the basis of Lagrange's work has been of immense value in theoretical Physics, and particularly in statistical Mechanics... But the most striking use of Lagrange's conception of generalized co-ordinates was made by Clerk Maxwell, who in this order of ideas, and inspired on the physical side by... Faraday, conceived and developed his dynamical theory of the Electromagnetic field, and obtained his celebrated equations. The form of Maxwell's equations enabled him to perceive that oscillations could be propagated in the electromagnetic field with the velocity of light, and suggested to him the Electromagnetic theory of light. Heinrich Herz, under the direct inspiration of Maxwell's ideas, demonstrated the possibility of setting up electromagnetic waves differing from those of light only in respect of their enormously greater length. We thus see that Lagrange's work... was an essential link in a chain of investigation of which one result... gladdens the heart of the practical man, viz. wireless telegraphy.
- Full use of Lagrange's own calculus of variations made the unification of the varied principles of statistics and dynamics possible—in statistics by the use of the principle of virtual velocities, in dynamics by the use of D'Alembert's principle. This led... to generalized coordinates and to the equation of motion in their "Lagrangian" form... Newton's geometrical approach was now fully discarded; Lagrange's book was a triumph of pure analysis.
- Dirk Jan Struik, A Concise History of Mathematics (1948) Ch. 8 The Eighteenth Century.
A Treatise on the Application of Generalised Coordinates to the Kinetics of a Material System (1879)
- The treatment of the kinetics of a material system by the method of generalised coordinates was first introduced by Lagrange, and has since his time been greatly developed by the investigations of different mathematicians.
Independently of the highly interesting, although purely abstract science of theoretical dynamics which has resulted from these investigations, they have proved of great and continually increasing value in the application of mechanics to thermal, electrical and chemical theories, and the whole range of molecular physics.
- When the position of every point of a material system can be determined in terms of any independent variables n in number, the system is said to possess n degrees of freedom, and the n independent variables are called the generalised coordinates.
The choice of the particular independent variables is perfectly arbitrary, and may be varied indefinitely, but the number of degrees of freedom cannot be either increased or diminished.
- In a rigid body free to move in any manner there are six degrees of freedom, and the generalised coordinates most frequently chosen in this case are the three rectangular coordinates of some point in the body and three angular coordinates determining the orientation of the body about that point, generally the angles θ, φ, ψ of ordinary occurrence in rigid dynamical problems.
- When the body degenerates into a material straight line the number of degrees of freedom is reduced to five; and when this straight line is constrained to move parallel to some fixed plane the number of degrees of freedom is still further reduced to four.