Hermann Grassmann

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Hermann Günther Grassmann

Hermann Günther Grassmann (April 15, 1809September 26, 1877) was a German polymath, best known as a mathematician and linguist. His mathematical work was little noted until he was in his sixties. He was also a physicist, neohumanist, general scholar, and publisher.


  • As I was reading the extract from your paper in the geometric sum and difference... I was struck by the marvelous similarity between your results and those discoveries which I made even as early as 1832...
    I conceived the first idea of the geometric sum and difference of two or more lines and also of the geometric product of two or three lines in that year (1832). This idea is in all ways identical to that presented in your paper. But since I was for a long time occupied with entirely different pursuits, I could not develop this idea. It was only in 1839 that I was led back to that idea and pursued this geometrical analysis up to the point where it ought to be applicable to all mechanics. It was possible for me to apply this method of analysis to the theory of tides, and in this I was astounded by the simplicity of the calculations resulting from this method.
  • From the imputation of confounding axioms with assumed concepts Euclid himself, however, is free. Euclid incorporated the former among his postulates while he separated the latter as common concepts—a proceeding which even on the part of his commentators was no longer understood, and likewise with modern mathematicians, unfortunately for science, has met with little imitation. As a matter of fact, the abstract methods of mathematical science know no axioms at all.
    • As quoted in "Diverse Topics: The Origin of Thought Forms," The Monist (1892) Vol. 2 ed., Paul Carus, citing The Open Court Vol. II. No. 77. A Flaw in the Foundation of Geometry by Hermann Grassmann, translated from his Ausdehnungslehre

Ausdehnungslehre (1844)[edit]

Linear Extension Theory: A New Branch of Mathematics a translation of Die Lineale Ausdehnungslehre, ein neuer Zweig der Mathematik, "Forward," as quoted in Michael J. Crowe, A History of Vector Analysis: The Evolution of the Idea of a Vectorial System (1967) unless otherwise noted. Quotes from editions between 1844 and 1862, inclusive.

  • Geometry can in no way be viewed... as a branch of mathematics; instead, geometry relates to something already given in nature, namely, space. I... realized that there must be a branch of mathematics which yields in a purely abstract way laws similar to geometry.
    • Forward, as quoted by Mario Livio, Is God a Mathematician? (2009)
  • It is clear... that the concept of space can in no wise be generated by thought. ...Whoever maintains the contrary must undertake to derive the dimensions of space from the pure laws of thought—a problem which is at once seen to be impossible of solution.
    • Die lineare Ausdehnungslehre (1844) Einleitung, p. 20 seq. As quoted by John Stallo, The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics (1881) Ch XIV. Metageometrical Space in the Light of Modern Analysis Riemann's Essay, p. 260.
  • The first impulse came from the consideration of negatives in geometry; I was accustomed to viewing the distances AB and BA as opposite magnitudes. Arising from this idea was the conclusion that if A, B, and C are points of a straight line, then in all cases AB + BC = AC, this being true whether AB and BC are directed in the same direction or in opposite directions (where C lies between A and B). In the latter case AB and BC were not viewed as merely lengths, but simultaneously their considered since they were oppositely directed, Thus dawned the distinction between the sum of lengths and the sum of distances which were fixed in direction. From this resulted the requirement for establishing this latter concept of sum, not simply for the case where the distances were directed in the same or opposite directions, but also for any other case. This could be done in the most simple manner, since the law that AB + BC = AC remains valid when A, B, and C do not lie on a straight line.
    This then was the first step which led to a new branch of mathematics... I did not however realize how fruitful and how rich was the field that I had opened up; rather that result seemed scarcely worthy of note until it was combined with a related idea.
  • While I was pursuing the concept of geometrical product, as this idea was established by my father... I concluded that not only rectangles, but also parallelograms, may be viewed as products of two adjacent sides, provided that the sides are viewed not merely as lengths, but rather as directed magnitudes. When I joined this concept of geometrical product with the previously established idea of geometrical sum the most striking harmony resulted. Thus when I multiplied the sum of two vectors by a third coplaner vector, the result coincided (and must always coincide) with the result obtained by multiplying separately each of the two original vectors by the third... and adding together (with due attention to positive and negative values) the two products. [Thus A(B + C) = AB + AC.]
    From this harmony I came to see a whole new area of analysis was opening up which could lead to important results.
  • A work on tidal theory... led me to Lagrange's Mécanique analytique and thereby I returned to those ideas of analysis. All the developments in that work were transformed through the principles of the new analysis in such a simple way that the calculations often came out more than ten times shorter than in Lagrange's work.
    • Note: the "ideas of analysis" to which he returned, are those quoted above.
  • The concept of rotation led to geometrical exponential magnitudes, to the analysis of angles and of trigonometric functions, etc. I was delighted how thorough the analysis thus formed and extended, not only the often very complex and unsymmetric formulae which are fundamental in tidal theory, but also the technique of development parallels the concept.
  • I feel entitled to hope that I have found in this new analysis the only natural method according to which mathematics should be applied to nature, and according to which geometry may also be treated, whenever it leads to general and to fruitful results.
  • The concept of centroid as sum led me to examine Möbius' Barycentrische Calcul, a work of which until then I knew only the title; and I was not little pleased to find here the same concept of the summation of points to which I had been led in the course of the development. This was the first, and... the only point of contact which my new system of analysis had with the one that was already known.
  • I define as a unit any magnitude that can serve for the numerical derivation of a series of magnitudes, and in particular I call such a unit an original unit if it is not derivable from another unit. The unit of numbers, that is one, I call the absolute unit, all others relative. Zero can never be a unit.
    • Definition 3. Part 1. The Elementary Conjunctions of Extensive Magnitudes. Ch. 1. Addition, Subtraction, Multiples and Fractions of Extensive Magnitudes. 1. Concepts and laws of calculation. Extension Theory Hermann Grassman, History of Mathematics (2000) Vol. 19 Tr. Lloyd C. Kannenberg, American Mathematical Society, London Mathematical Society

Quotes about Grassmann[edit]

  • It was natural that Grassmann chose to introduce his system, not by means of a paper, but rather by means of a long and complicated book. ...such ideas as Grassmann's form of the scaler (dot) and vector (cross) products... have counterparts in modern vector analysis.
  • One may say without great exaggeration that Grassmann invented linear algebra and, with none at all, that he showed how properly to apply it to geometry. ...He ...anticipated in its most important aspects Peano's treatment of the natural numbers, published 28 years later. ...A feature of Grassmann's work, far in advance of the times, is the tendency towards the use of the implicit definition. ...The definition of a linear space (or vector space) came into mathematics, in the sense of becoming widely known, around 1920, when Hermann Weyl and others published formal definitions. ...Grassmann did not put down a formal definition—again, the language was not available—but there is no doubt that he had the concept.
    • Desmond Fearnley-Sander, "Hermann Grassmann and the Creation of Linear Algebra" (1979)
  • The history of geometry may be conveniently divided into five periods. The first extends from the origin of the science to about A. D. 550, followed by a period of about 1,000 years during which it made no advance, and in Europe was enshrouded in the darkness of the middle ages; the second began about 1550, with the revival of the ancient geometry; the third in the first half of the 17th century, with the invention by Descartes of analytical or modern geometry; the fourth in 1684, with the invention of the differential calculus; the fifth with the invention of descriptive geometry by Monge in 1795. The quaternions of Sir William Rowan Hamilton the Ausdehnungslehre of Dr. Hermann Grassmann, and various other publications, indicate the dawn of a new period. Whether they are destined to remain merely monuments of the ingenuity and acuteness of their authors, or are to become mighty instruments in the investigation of old and the discovery of new truths, it is perhaps impossible to predict.
    • W. M. Ferriss, "Geometry," The American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary for General Knowledge (1883) ed., George Ripley, Charles Anderson Dana Vol. 7
  • The wonderful and comprehensive system of Multiple Algebra invented by Hermann Grassmann, and called by him the Ausdehnungslehre or Theory of Extension, though long neglected by the mathematicians even of Germany, is at the present time coming to be more and more appreciated and studied. In order that this system, with its intrinsic naturalness, and adaptability to all the purposes of Geometry and Mechanics, should be generally introduced to the knowledge of the coming generation of English-speaking mathematicians, it is very necessary that a text-book should be provided, suitable for use in colleges and universities, through which students may become acquainted with the principles of the subject and its applications.
  • As the great generality of Grassmann's processes—all results being obtained for n-dimensional space—has been one of the main hindrances to the general cultivation of his system, it has been thought best to restrict the discussion to space of two and three dimensions.
    • Edward Wyllys Hyde, The Directional Calculus: Based Upon the Methods of Hermann Grassmann (1890)
  • Grassmann's first publication of his new system was made in 1844 in a book entitled "Die Lineale Ausdehnungslehre Ein Neuer Zweig der Mathematik." His novel and fruitful ideas were however presented in a somewhat abstruse and unusual form, with the result, as the author himself states in the preface to the second edition issued in 1878, that scarcely any notice was taken of the book by Mathematicians.
    He was finally convinced that it would be necessary to treat the subject in an entirely different manner in order to gain the attention of the mathematical world. Accordingly in 1862 he published "Die Ausdehnungslehre vollständig und in strenger Form bearbeitet," in which the treatment is algebraic...
    Since that time his great work has been more fully appreciated, but not even yet, in the opinion of the writer, at its real value.
  • The exchange theorem... is sometimes called the Steinitz exchange theorem after Ernst Steinitz... The result was first proved Hermann Günther Graßmann...
    • Jörg Liesen, Volker Mehrmann, Linear Algebra (2015)
  • Some of the groundbreaking work in the treatment of n-dimensional geometry—was carried out by Hermann Günther Grassmann. ...Grassmann was responsible for the creation of an abstract science of "spaces," inside which the usual geometry was only a special case. Grassmann published his pioneering ideas (originating a branch of mathematics known as linear algebra) in 1844, in a book commonly known as Ausdehnungslehre... Grassmann's suggestion that BA = -AB violates one of the sacrosanct laws of arithmetic... Grassmann faced up squarely to this disturbing possibility and invented a new consistent algebra (known as exterior algebra) that allowed for several processes of multiplication and at the same time could handle geometry in any number of dimensions.

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