Self-explanatory title really! A student today asked me why they were called integral domains -- and I realised that the word "integral" seems to be being used in a way totally unlike any other way I hear it used in mathematics. The student suggested that "integral" was used because the integers were an example -- but I didn't buy this because by that logic they could have been called "rational domains" or "real domains".

Any ideas anyone?

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    Here's a quote from Earliest known uses..., though it's almost surely not the earliest: `INTEGRAL DOMAIN is found in 1911 in Monographs on Topics of Modern Mathematics: Relevant to the Elementary Field by numerous writers: "Similarly, the integral domain [R1, R2, R3, ...] may be defined by replacing the expressions rational functions and rational coefficients in the preceding definition by integral functions and integral coefficients respectively."' – Bill Dubuque Jun 17 '11 at 18:35
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    I don't know if it is the origin, but in Dedekind's Sur la Theorie des Nombres Entiers Algebriques (1877), he writes " is easy to see that, in the domain of all integers we are considering at present, primes do not exist" (refering to the ring of all algebraic integers), and refers later to "the domain $R$" to refer to a system built up from the rationals; he uses "domains" throughout the work to refer to subrings of algebraic numbers (at least in Stillwell's translation). – Arturo Magidin Jun 17 '11 at 18:39
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    The term "integral" comes from rings of algebraic integers - the study of which motivated the abstraction of many algebraic structures (rings, domains, fields, modules, groups, etc), e.g. see Kleiner's historical exposition. – Bill Dubuque Jun 17 '11 at 18:39
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    @Kevin: I see; sorry for misunderstanding. I will point out that for "rational domains", the problem is that "domain of rationality" or "rational domain" was in fact an early name for "number field" (Hilbert mentions this in section 1 of the Zahlbericht, attributing it to Dedekind and/or Kronecker), named because it was constructed as "the collection of all rational functions of [a finite number of arbitrary algebraic numbers]". – Arturo Magidin Jun 17 '11 at 19:17
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    @Kevin "Integral" is overloaded in its historical evolution. It refers both to the notion of integral algebraic elements and also to subrings Z of fields Q which are considered to be "integers" (which yield an associated notion of divisibility: a|b in Z iff a/b in Z). But divisibility theory is much more complex in the presence of zero divisors (e.g. the notion of associate bifurcates into a few inequivalent concepts). So "integral domain" evolved to mean rings with amenable divisibility theory like the integers. – Bill Dubuque Jun 17 '11 at 19:21
up vote 15 down vote accepted

Edit: I only see now that most if not all of the points were already made in the comments, but since I provide links and excerpts I leave the answer here. What I think is the answer comes right at the end of this lengthy post.

Edit 2: Added some formatting, minor corrections.

Disclaimer: This is not a definitive answer but I traced the German word Integritätsbereich through some famous older texts in German and I reproduce here what I found. It essentially confirms what Bill Dubuque said in several comments. Let me stress that I only looked in the most obvious places, so there may be earlier usages or better references than the ones I give here:

1. Early usage in the sense of algebraic integers

In Hilbert's Zahlbericht (1897) we find the following passage (unfortunately I can't access the English translation, so I hope German will do), which I'm reproducing from page 121 of volume 1 of his collected works (Göttinger Digitalisierungszentrum GDZ):


The footnote to Integritätsbereich reads: Nach Dedekind "eine Ordnung".

As Bill Dubuque pointed out in a comment, the term Rationalitäts-Bereich appears in Kronecker's Grundzüge einer arithmetischen Theorie der algebraischen Grössen (1882) and there is the following passage mentioning Integritäts-Bereich (reproduced from on pages 14 and 15:

Kronecker Grundzüge 1Kronecker Grundzüge 2

As far as I can tell, Kronecker stuck to his intention of not using "Integritäts-Bereich" and I found it only mentioned once more at the beginning of § 22 on page 84.

For the sake of completeness: Hilbert also mentions Rationalitätsbereich and refers to Kroneckers work above as well as to Dedekind's Supplement XI to Dirichlet's Vorlesungen über Zahlentheorie, titled Über die Theorie der ganzen algebraischen Zahlen, available in volume 3 of Dedekind's collected works (GDZ) both in German and in French. As far as I can tell the word Integritätsbereich is not mentioned there (as Hilbert mentions the word Ordnung is used instead) but, incidentally, we find Zahlkörper, rationale ganze Zahlen, and, of course algebraische ganze Zahlen (and many more terms) used in precisely the same way as they are used today.

2. Modern usage

The modern abstract notion can be found in Emmy Noether's work (where else?), for example in Idealtheorie in Ringbereichen, Math. Annalen 83 (1921), 24–66 (the underlined text appears this way in Springer's online edition).

Noether Idealtheorie in RingbereichenNoether Idealtheorie in Ringbereichen 2

Of course, this doesn't explain why exactly this property of algebraic integers should be isolated, not something else but maybe that's something that only Emmy Noether herself could answer.

Added: A. Fraenkel, Über die Teiler der Null und die Zerlegung von Ringen, Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik (Crelle's Journal) 145 (1915), 139–176 contains the following passage:

Fraenkel Teiler der Null

The fact that an integral domain embeds into its field of fractions which is constructed in analogy with the construction of the rational numbers out of the integers is explicitly mentioned here. This seems a reasonable explanation for the choice of terminology which allows us to think of the elements of an integral domain as integers in some field. Of course, the term "ganze Zahl" (integer, literally: "entire number") is to be understood as "not a real fraction", that is: a fraction representable as $r/1$ with $r$ an element of the domain $R$.

In fact [slightly paraphrasing], Fraenkel even goes so far as to say that the ring properties of an integral domain are only artificial ("nur künstlich") and inherited from a surrounding field, as opposed to a ring with zero divisors which is deemed to posses a natural ("natürlich") structure of a ring. This also explains why "Integritätsbereich" is only mentioned this one time in the entire paper.

There is also a detailed discussion of the axioms of rings, quite close to what one finds in any basic algebra text nowadays.

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    Thanks a lot. It seems to me that there is a case for arguing that Noether's use of the term should be a good candidate for "first time the term is used (with the meaning that it currently has)" on the history website. My reading of Hilbert and Kronecker is that, to the extent that they use the term at all, they use it to mean something different to what the phrase means today -- they are talking solely about algebraic integers as far as I can see. – Kevin Buzzard Jun 18 '11 at 15:58
  • @Kevin: Your reading of Hilbert and Kronecker is certainly correct. The way I read Kronecker is that he actually coined the term. I see your point about Noether but one should definitely examine (at least) Fraenkel's work on rings and Noether's earlier work more closely than I did. Fraenkel deserves being mentioned in my opinion because his paper marks at least a transition. – t.b. Jun 18 '11 at 16:24

Earliest Known Uses of Some of the Words of Mathematics claims that the first recorded use of this term is in the 1911 text Monographs on topics of modern mathematics. It has a slightly different meaning there: if $r_1, ... r_n$ are numbers (I cannot get a clear sense of exactly what kind of numbers are considered here; perhaps algebraic integers) then $\mathbb{Z}[r_1, ... r_n]$ is called in that text the domain of integrity of the $r_i$ and $\mathbb{Q}(r_1, ... r_n)$ the domain of rationality of the $r_i$.

The terminology seems (based on my quick read) to have been motivated as follows: the first object is the closure of the $r_i$ under "integral operations" (addition, subtraction, multiplication, more generally composition with an integer polynomial) while the second is the closure of the $r_i$ under "rational operations" (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, more generally composition with a rational function). Of course $\mathbb{Z}[r_1, ... r_n]$ is always an integral domain in the modern sense; perhaps that's how the terminology evolved.

van der Waerden's Modern Algebra (1930) contains the modern definition with no comment, so it was established by then (perhaps van der Waerden was responsible for establishing it!).

  • If I'd known about the history website I wouldn't have asked the question, probably -- but I am not at all convinced by the answer in some sense. If we have some algebraic integers then we get a subring of the complexes that they generate and this happens to be called an integral something -- but how do we get from this to the definition of an integral domain, where something rather different from "subring of the complexes finite over Z" is being stressed?? I guess what I'm saying is that "domain of integrity" seems to me to be a completely different notion than integral domain. – Kevin Buzzard Jun 17 '11 at 18:51
  • In particular, looking at the history website -- it almost seems a coincidence that the phrase "integral domain" is being used in this context -- I would like to argue that here "integral" really is being used in the standard sense of "satisfying a monic poly with Z coeffts" rather than "no zero divisors". What I'm saying is that this might be the first time the phrase is used in a maths book -- but it's not being used to mean what it means today, it's just a coincidence that the two words landed next to each other. – Kevin Buzzard Jun 17 '11 at 18:54
  • @Kevin: I wouldn't be so sure. The key point here is that "domain of integrity" is being used to denote a subring of a field, and at some point I wouldn't be surprised if someone realized that was a basic property that distinguished these rings from other rings. Of course I could be totally wrong; I really don't know what happened between 1911 and 1930 and can't think of any obvious sources to check. – Qiaochu Yuan Jun 17 '11 at 18:56
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    If memory serves correct the terminology stems from Kronecker's famous Grundzuge - where he presented his theory of divisors. Here he called fields Rationalitatsbereich. This was often translated as "domains of rationality". For integral subrings he used the prefix ganze (whole or integral). Combining the first two terms yields "integral domain". – Bill Dubuque Jun 17 '11 at 19:08
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    Qiaochu: I am sure Bill is bang on the money re the 1911 term. I am still not at all convinced that the entry on the history page is at all useful, in the sense that the phrase happens to be being used, but not at all in the sense that it's used now. In the comments under the question Bill suggests another link between algebraic integers and no zero divisors -- the intermediate notion of "where is a good place to generate interesting questions about division?". As you already said, perhaps one needs to dig about between 1911 and 1930. – Kevin Buzzard Jun 17 '11 at 19:28

I've always heard that the term Integral Domain comes from "domain of integrity" meaning "no cracks" in the ring, with the idea that zero divisors are like flaws in a diamond. This description comes from my teacher, the late great Prof. Gerhard Hochschild of UC Berkeley. So there.

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