History of Mathematics

Cartesian Coordinate System
René Descartes ©Frans Hals
1637 Jan 1

Cartesian Coordinate System

Netherlands

The Cartesian refers to the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, who published this idea in 1637 while he was resident in the Netherlands. It was independently discovered by Pierre de Fermat, who also worked in three dimensions, although Fermat did not publish the discovery.[109] The French cleric Nicole Oresme used constructions similar to Cartesian coordinates well before the time of Descartes and Fermat.[110]


Both Descartes and Fermat used a single axis in their treatments and have a variable length measured in reference to this axis. The concept of using a pair of axes was introduced later, after Descartes' La Géométrie was translated into Latin in 1649 by Frans van Schooten and his students. These commentators introduced several concepts while trying to clarify the ideas contained in Descartes's work.[111]


The development of the Cartesian coordinate system would play a fundamental role in the development of the calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.[112] The two-coordinate description of the plane was later generalized into the concept of vector spaces.[113]


Many other coordinate systems have been developed since Descartes, such as the polar coordinates for the plane, and the spherical and cylindrical coordinates for three-dimensional space.


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