16
$\begingroup$

What are the historical origins of the $f(x)$ notation used for functions? That is when did people start to use this notation instead of just thinking in terms of two different variables one being dependent on the other?

Any references would be appreciated.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ I believe Euler (?) invented the $f(x)$ notation, though I may be wrong. $\endgroup$ – Ayesha Jan 12 '14 at 23:31
  • $\begingroup$ Weierstrass, I bet. $\endgroup$ – Hooman Jan 12 '14 at 23:38
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Everybody knows it was Feynman's idea... :-P $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jan 12 '14 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ Wikipedia attributes it to Euler, but does not cite a reliable source. $\endgroup$ – MJD Jan 12 '14 at 23:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The quote in the previous comment is from Wikipedia's article on "History of the function concept". The citation for both claims is Eves, Howard (1990). Foundations and Fundamental Concepts of Mathematics (3rd ed.). Dover. ISBN 0-486-69609-X. The first edition was published in 1958. $\endgroup$ – MJD Jan 12 '14 at 23:43
19
$\begingroup$

The authoritative reference for these matters is the book

Florian Cajori, A History of Mathematical Notations (1929), reprinted by Dover.

On page 268 of volume II, Cajori says that the notation $f(x)$ was first used by Euler in 1734:

enter image description here

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

Some remarks:

  1. Euler did not write $f(x)$ in most of his works. Instead he just wrote $f\, x$ or later in his life $f:x$. Of course, when he considered a function of a composite qunatity like $\frac{x}{a}+c$ he had to use parenthesis and write $f(\frac{x}{a}+c)$, since $f\, \frac{x}{a}+c$ could have been misunderstood for $(f \frac{x}{a})+c$. But by Euler's own account, the original notation was intended to be used as $f\, x$ and not as $f(x)$. This was also true in the writings of Lagrange. (So functional programming languages that omit parenthesis are on the right side of history.)

  2. Euler did not invent the notation $f\, x$ for an arbitrary function of $x$, it was his teacher Johann Bernoulli! See the quoted passage of Cajori in the answer of lhf. Bernoulli used the greek $\phi$ instead of the latin $f$, but changing $\phi$ to $f$ can hardly be considered a significant step by Euler.

  3. During Bernoulli's time it was already common practice to write things like $$ l\,x,\quad r\,x \quad \text{and}\quad s\, x \; \text{ (or} \sin x) $$ for the logarithm the root and the sine of $x$ respectively. From this perspective writing $\phi\, x$ for an arbitrary function of $x$ seems quite natural.

  4. Finally, and this might be the hardest part to understand for a modern mathematician: according to Bernoulli, Euler and Lagrange (and many others), the $f$ in $f\, x$ was not what was called the function, instead $f$ was called the character of the function $f\,x$, while $f\,x$ was called the function of $x$. But it was common to omit the "of $x$" and call $f\,x$ just a function.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

According to this wiki article (search for "function"), this goes back to the first half of 17th century, so long before Euler (as it should be, since Newton already use the dot over the function symbol for derivative).

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Newton occasionally used function symbols, but I don't believe he used the $f(x)$ notation; I've skimmed both Principia as well as the more directly relevant Method of Fluxions and never seen the function-application parentheses in his work; he seems beholden to the 'dependent variables' concept. (See, e.g., archive.org/details/methodoffluxions00newt ) $\endgroup$ – Steven Stadnicki Jan 13 '14 at 0:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I wonder if Newton ever used the word "function" since it was Leibniz who introduced it. $\endgroup$ – Michael Bächtold Jul 3 '17 at 13:58
1
$\begingroup$

Take a look at Earliest uses of symbols.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

See also this: http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/HistTopics/Functions.html

It has a good historical information.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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