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16 Oct

The discovery of quaternions

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 […] Every morning in the early part of the above-cited month [ October, 1843], 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.”


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, ijk; namely,
i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = -1
which contains the Solution of the Problem, but of course, as an inscription, has long since mouldered away.

Letter dated August 5, 1865 from Sir W. R. Hamilton to Rev. Archibald H. Hamilton.

The classic account of the discover of quaternions. Hamilton also notes in this letter that the Council Books of the Academy record that he had obtained leave to read a paper on quaternions, which reading took place on the 13th November 1843.

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