Take the 2-minute tour ×
Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Could someone explain who came up with the specific equation first?


makes it sound like Lagrange got it first, in 1755, then sent it to Euler.



sort of makes it sound like Euler got it first in the 1730s.

It seems like a straightforward question, but I can't find an answer anywhere. Who came up with the equation, Euler or Lagrange? And what precisely did the other man contribute to get his name on there?

share|improve this question
Jacobi would know.... :-) –  Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Jul 31 '12 at 16:57
Have you seen this? –  J. M. Jul 31 '12 at 17:02
This has been asked also here mathoverflow.net/questions/103623/… –  Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Jul 31 '12 at 18:57
some interesting papers I found : Fraser1, Fraser2, Hanc –  Raymond Manzoni Jul 31 '12 at 22:22
add comment

1 Answer 1

I'm writing this partially not to let this question go unanswered and partially to include some details that I didn't find at the MO post.

There is a book by Herman Goldstine titled "A History of the Calculus of Variations from the 17th through the 19th Century" that covers the history and development of the Euler-Lagrange equation (and much more, naturally), and it covers this topic well. In it, Goldstine writes that Euler first discovered what we now call the Euler-Lagrange equation prior to April 15, 1743, which we know as a result of a letter from that date sent by Euler to Daniel Bernoulli containing his discovery. Euler then published this finding to a broader audience in his 1744 Methodus Inveniendi.

Euler's derivation approximated a curve by $N$ points and then let $N$ go to infinity to find extremals. This method was somewhat tedious in its implementation and Euler himself was interested in finding a method that did not rely on any geometry as his method did.

Eleven years later, in a letter dated August 12, 1755, Lagrange (at just 19 years old) sent Euler a letter in which he re-derived Euler's result using purely analytical methods. Lagrange's derivation was powerful enough to handle other types of problems and had Euler's earlier result as a nearly automatic consequence. Euler himself much preferred Lagrange's derivation and gave it the name "calculus of variations," and it is essentially Lagrange's technique that is used today.

The name of the equation, then, is very reasonable given that Euler found it first and Lagrange refined his approach.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.