OHMS or everything you wanted to know about the history of trigonometry and didn’t know who to ask

When I was a kid, letters from government departments came in buff, manila envelopes with OHMS printed on the front is large, black, capital letters. This acronym stood for, On Her Majesty’s Service and earlier during Liz’s father’s reign (and no I’m not that old, although I was just born in his reign), On His Majesty’s Service, implying that civil servants worked directly for the monarch.  This was, of course, the origin of the title of Ian Fleming’s eleventh James Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

When I started learning trigonometry at school this acronym took on a whole new meaning as a mnemonic for the sine relation in right angle triangles, Opposite over Hypotenuse Means Sine. Recently it occurred to me that we had no mnemonic for the other trigonometric relations. Now in those days or even later when the trigonometry I was taught got more complex, I wasn’t aware of the fact that this mathematical discipline had a history. Now, a long year historian of mathematics, I am very much aware of the fact that trigonometry has a very complex, more than two-thousand-year history, winding its way from ancient Greece over India, the Islamic Empire and Early Modern Europe down to the present day. 

The Canadian historian of mathematics, Glen van Brummelen has dedicated a large part of his life to researching, writing up and publishing that history of trigonometry. The results of his labours have appeared in three volumes, over the years, The Mathematics of the Heavens and the Earth: The Early History of Trigonometry, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2009, Heavenly Mathematics: The Forgotten Art of Spherical Trigonometry, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2013 and most recently The Doctrine of TrianglesA History of Modern Trigonometry, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2021. He describes himself as the “best trigonometry historian, and the worst trigonometry historian”, as he is the only one[1]

A review of these three volumes could be written in one sentence, if you are interested in the history of trigonometry, then these three masterful volumes are essential. One really doesn’t need to say more, but in what follows I will give a brief sketch of each of the books. 

The Mathematics of the Heavens and the Earth: The Early History of Trigonometry delivers exactly what it says on the cover. The book opens with a brief but detailed introduction to the basics of spherical astronomy, because for a large part of the period covered, what we have is not the history of plane trigonometry, that’s the stuff we all learnt at school, but spherical trigonometry, that is the geometry of triangles on the surface of a sphere, which was developed precisely to do spherical astronomy. 

A friendly warning for potential readers this is not popular history but real, hardcore history of mathematics with lots of real mathematical examples worked through in detail. However, given the way Van Brummelen structures his narrative, it is possible to skip the worked examples and still get a strong impression of the historical evolution of the discipline. This is possible because Van Brummelen gives a threefold description of every topic that he elucidates. First comes a narrative, fairly non-technical, description of the topic he is discussing. This is followed by an English translation of a worked example from the historical text under discussion, followed in turn by a technical explication of the text in question in modern terminology. Van Brummelen’s narrative style is clear and straightforward meaning that the non-expert reader can get good understanding of the points being made, without necessarily wading through the intricacies of the piece of mathematics under discussion. 

The book precedes chronologically. The first chapter, Precursors, starts by defining what trigonometry is and also what it isn’t. Having dealt with the definitions, Van Brummelen moves onto the history proper dealing with things that preceded the invention of trigonometry, which are closely related but are not trigonometry. 

Moving on to Alexandrian Greece, Van Brummelen takes the reader through the beginnings of trigonometry starting with Hipparchus, who produced the first chord table linking angles to chords and arcs of circles, Moving on through Theodosius of Bithynia and Menelaus of Alexandria and the emergence of spherical trigonometry. He then arrives at Ptolemy his astronomy and geography. Ptolemy gets the longest section of the book, which given that everything that follows in some way flows from his work in logical. Here we also get two defining features of the book. The problem of calculating trigonometrical tables and what each astronomer or mathematician contributed to this problem and the trigonometrical formulas that each of them developed to facilitate calculations. 

From Greece we move to India and the halving of Hipparchus’ and Ptolemy’s chords to produce the sine function and later the cosine that we still use today. Van Brummelen takes his reader step for step and mathematician for mathematician through the developments of trigonometry in India. 

The Islamic astronomers took over the baton from the Indians and continued the developments both in astronomy and geography. It was Islamic mathematicians, who developed the plane trigonometry that we know today rather than the spherical trigonometry. As with much other mathematics and science, trigonometry came into medieval Europe through the translation movement out of Arabic into Latin. Van Brummelen traces the development in medieval Europe down to the first Viennese School of mathematics, John of Gmunden, Peuerbach, and Regiomontanus. This volume closes with Johannes Werner and Copernicus, with a promise of a second volume. 

In the book itself, the brief sketch above is filled out in incredible detail covering all aspects of the evolution of the discipline, the problems, the advances, the stumbling stones and the mathematicians and astronomers, who discovered each problem, solved, or failed to solve them. To call Van Brummelen comprehensive would almost be an understatement. Having finished this first volume, I eagerly awaited the promised second volume, but something else came along instead.

Having made clear in his first book that the emphasis is very much on spherical trigonometry rather than plane trigonometry, in his second book Van Brummelen sets out to explain to the modern reader what exactly spherical trigonometry is, as it ceased to be part of the curriculum sometime in the modern period. What we have in Heavenly Mathematics: The Forgotten Art of Spherical Trigonometry is a spherical trigonometry textbook written from a historical perspective. The whole volume is written in a much lighter and more accessible tone than The Mathematics of the Heavens and the Earth. After a preface elucidating the purpose of the book there follow two chapters, Heavenly Mathematics and Exploring the Sphere, which lay out and explain the basics in clear and easy to follow steps.

Next up, we have the historical part of the book with one chapter each on The Ancient Approach and The Medieval Approach. These chapters could be used as an aid to help understand the relevant sections of the authors first book. But fear not the reader must not don his medieval personality to find their way around the complexities of spherical trigonometry because following this historical guide we are led into the modern textbook.

The bulk of the book consists of five chapters, each of which deals in a modern style with an aspect of spherical trigonometry: Right Angle Triangles, Oblique Triangles, Areas, Angles and Polyhedra, Stereographic Projection, and finally Navigation by the Stars. The chapter on stereographic projection is particularly interesting for those involved with astrolabes and/or cartography. 

The book closes with three useful appendices. The first is on Ptolemy’s determination of the position of sun. The second is a bibliography of textbooks on or including spherical trigonometry with the very helpful indication, which of them are available on Google Books. The final appendix is a chapter by chapter annotated list of further reading on each topic. 

If you wish to up your Renaissance astrology game and use the method of directions to determine your date of death, which require spherical trigonometry to convert from one celestial coordinate system to another, then this is definitely the book for you. It is of course also a brilliant introduction for anybody, who wishes to learn the ins and outs of spherical trigonometry. 

I bought Van Brummelen’s first book when it was published, in 2009, and read it with great enthusiasm, but experienced a sort of coitus interruptus, when in stopped in the middle of the Renaissance, the period that interested me most. I was consoled by the author’s declaration that a second volume would follow, which I looked forward to with great expectations. Over the years those expectations dimmed, and I began to fear that the promised second volume would never appear, so I was overjoyed when the publication of The Doctrine of Triangles was announced this year and immediately placed an advanced order. I was not disappointed. 

The modern history of trigonometry continues where the early history left off, tracing the developments of trigonometry in Europe from Regiomontanus down to Clavius and Gunter in the early seventeenth century. There then follows a major change of tack, as Van Brummelen delves into the origins of logarithms.

Today in the age of the computer and the pocket calculator, logarithmic tables are virtually unknown, a forgotten relic of times past. I, however, grew up using my trusty four figure log tables to facilitate calculations in maths, physics, and chemistry. Now, school kids only know logarithms as functions in analysis. One thing that many, who had the pleasure of using log tables, don’t know is that Napier’s first tables were of the logarithms of trigonometrical factions in order to turn the difficult multiplications and divisions of sines, cosines et al in spherical trigonometry into much simpler additions and subtractions and therefore Van Brummelen’s detailed presentation of the topic.

Moving on, in his third chapter, Van Brummelen now turns to the transition of trigonometry as a calculation aid in spherical and plane triangles to trigonometrical functions in calculus. There where they exist in school mathematics today. Starting in the period before Leibniz and Newton, he takes us all the way through to Leonard Euler in the middle of the eighteenth century. 

The book now undergoes a truly major change of tack, as Van Brummelen introduces a comparative study of the history of trigonometry in Chinese mathematics. In this section he deals with the Indian and Islamic introduction of trigonometry into China and its impact. How the Chinese dealt with triangles before they came into contact with trigonometry and then the Jesuit introductions of both trigonometry and logarithms into China and to what extent this influenced Chinese geometry of the triangle. A fascinating study and an enrichment of his already excellent book.

The final section of the book deals with a potpourri of developments in trigonometry in Europe post Euler. To quote Van Brummelen, “A collection of short stories is thus more appropriate here than a continuous narrative.” The second volume of Van Brummelen’s history is just as detailed and comprehensive as the first. 

All three of the books display the same high level of academic rigour and excellence. The two history volumes have copious footnotes, very extensive bibliographies, and equally extensive indexes. The books are all richly illustrated with many first-class explanatory diagrams and greyscale prints of historical title pages and other elements of the books that Van Brummelen describes. All in all, in his three volumes Van Brummelen delivers a pinnacle in the history of mathematics that sets standards for all other historians of the discipline. He really does live up to his claim to be “the best historian of trigonometry” and not just because he’s the only one.

Coda: If the potential reader feels intimidated by the prospect of the eight hundred and sixty plus pages of the three volumes described here, they could find a gentle entry to the topic in Trigonometry: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2020), which is also authored by Van Brummelen, a sort of Van Brummelen light or Van Brummelen’s greatest hits.

In this he covers a wide range of trigonometrical topics putting them into their historical context. But beware, reading the Very Short Introduction could well lead to further consumption of Van Brummelen’s excellent work. 


[1] This is not strictly true as Van Brummelen has at least two predecessors both of who he quotes in his works. The German historian Anton von Braunmühl, who wrote several articles and a two volume Vorlesung über Geschichte der Trigonometrie (Leipzig, 1900/1903) and the American Sister Mary Claudia Zeller, The Development of Trigonometry from Regiomontanus to Pitiscus (Ann Arbor 1944)

5 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Islamic Science, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation

5 responses to “OHMS or everything you wanted to know about the history of trigonometry and didn’t know who to ask

  1. Thanks for a particularly interesting post.

    Back when I was in high school, I was fascinated by spherical trigonometry. No, this wasn’t taught in high school, but there were books in the library.

    I later dropped my interest in that. I had recognized that it was the relation of trig functions to calculus that mattered most.

  2. rtpoe

    The mnemonic I was taught was SOHCAHTOA.

    Sine = Opposite / Hypotenuse
    Cosine = Adjacent / Hypotenuse
    Tangent = Opposite / Adjacent

  3. Not a history per se, but Eli Maor’s Trigonometric Delights lives up to its title, IMO. (The publisher calls it “a compelling blend of history, biography, and mathematics”.)

    I too was taught SOH-CAH-TOA. (Actually, “Chief SOH-CAH-TOA”, something that would not go over too well these days.)

  4. Ian H

    I was taught “Tawny Owls Are Stupid, One Has Caught A Horse”

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