Letters describing the Discovery of Quaternions

Letter from Sir W. R. Hamilton to Rev. Archibald H. Hamilton.

Letter dated August 5, 1865.

MY DEAR ARCHIBALD - (1) I had been wishing for an occasion of corresponding a little with you on QUATERNIONS: and such now presents itself, by your mentioning in your note of yesterday, received this morning, that you ``have been reflecting on several points connected with them'' (the quaternions), ``particularly on the Multiplication of Vectors.''

(2) No more important, or indeed fundamental question, in the whole Theory of Quaternions, can be proposed than that which thus inquires What is such MULTIPLICATION? What are its Rules, its Objects, its Results? What Analogies exist between it and other Operations, which have received the same general Name? And finally, what is (if any) its Utility?

(3) If I may be allowed to speak of myself in connexion with the subject, I might do so in a way which would bring you in, by referring to an ante-quaternionic time, when you were a mere child, but had caught from me the conception of a Vector, as represented by a Triplet: and indeed I happen to be able to put the finger of memory upon the year and month - October, 1843 - when having recently returned from visits to Cork and Parsonstown, connected with a meeting of the British Association, the desire to discover the laws of the multiplication referred to regained with me a certain strength and earnestness, which had for years been dormant, but was then on the point of being gratified, and was occasionally talked of with you. Every morning in the early part of the above-cited month, on my coming down to breakfast, your (then) little brother William Edwin, and yourself, used to ask me, ``Well, Papa, can you multiply triplets''? Whereto I was always obliged to reply, with a sad shake of the head: ``No, I can only add and subtract them.''

(4) But on the 16th day of the same month - which happened to be a Monday, and a Council day of the Royal Irish Academy - I was walking in to attend and preside, and your mother was walking with me, along the Royal Canal, to which she had perhaps driven; and although she talked with me now and then, yet an under-current of thought was going on in my mind, which gave at last a result, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt at once the importance. An electric circuit seemed to close; and a spark flashed forth, the herald (as I foresaw, immediately) of many long years to come of definitely directed thought and work, by myself if spared, and at all events on the part of others, if I should even be allowed to live long enough distinctly to communicate the discovery. Nor could I resist the impulse - unphilosophical as it may have been - to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge, as we passed it, the fundamental formula with the symbols, i, j, k; namely,

i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = -1
which contains the Solution of the Problem, but of course, as an inscription, has long since mouldered away. A more durable notice remains, however, on the Council Books of the Academy for that day (October 16th, 1843), which records the fact, that I then asked for and obtained leave to read a Paper on Quaternions, at the First General Meeting of the session: which reading took place accordingly, on Monday the 13th of the November following.

With this quaternion of paragraphs I close this letter I.; but I hope to follow it up very shortly with another.

Your affectionate father,

Extract from a letter from Sir W. R. Hamilton to Professor P.G. Tait.

Letter dated October 15, 1858.

. . . P.S. - To-morrow will be the 15th birthday of the Quaternions. They started into life, or light, full grown, on [Monday] the 16th of October, 1843, as I was walking with Lady Hamilton to Dublin, and came up to Brougham Bridge, which my boys have since called the Quaternion Bridge. That is to say, I then and there felt the galvanic circuit of thought close; and the sparks which fell from it were the fundamental equations between i, j, k; exactly such as I have used them ever since. I pulled out on the spot a pocket-book, which still exists, and made an entry, on which, at the very moment, I felt that it might be worth my while to expend the labour of at least ten (or it might be fifteen) years to come. But then it is fair to say that this was because I felt a problem to have been at that moment solved - an intellectual want relieved - which had haunted me for at least fifteen years before.

Less than an hour elapsed before I had asked and obtained leave of the Council of the Royal Irish Academy, of which Society I was, at that time, the President - to read at the next General Meeting a Paper on Quaternions; which I accordingly did, on November 13, 1843.

Some of those early communications of mine to the Academy may still have some interest for a person like you, who has since so well studied my volume, which was not published for ten years afterwards.

In the meantime, will you not do honour to the birthday to-morrow, in an extra cup of - ink? for it may be obsolete now to propose XXX, or even XYZ.

Note: Robert P. Graves notes in his biography of Hamilton that `Brougham Bridge', referred to by Hamilton in his letters regarding the discovery of quaternions, is properly referred to as Broome Bridge: so called from the name of a family residing near.

Source: Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton by Robert P. Graves, Volume II, Chapter XXVIII


D.R. Wilkins
School of Mathematics
Trinity College, Dublin