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TO THE first edition of this work, published in 1867, the following was prefixed :
THE present work was commenced in 1859, while I was a Professor of Mathematics, and far more ready at Quaternion analysis than I can now pretend to be. Had it been then completed I should have had means of testing its teaching capabilities, and of improving it, before publication, where found deficient in that respect.
'The duties of another Chair, and Sir W. Hamilton's wish that my volume should not appear till after the publication of his Elements, interrupted my already extensive preparations. I had worked out nearly all the examples of Analytical Geometry in Todhunter's Collection, and I had made various physical applications of the Calculus, especially to Crystallography, to Geometrical Optics, and to the Induction of Currents, in addition to those on Kinematics, Electrodynamics, Fresnel's Wave Surface, &c., which are reprinted in the present work from the Quarterly Mathematical Journal and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
'Sir W. Hamilton, when I saw him but a few days before his death, urged me to prepare my work as soon as possible, his being ́ almost ready for publication. He then expressed, more strongly perhaps than he had ever done before, his profound conviction of the importance of Quaternions to the progress of physical science; and his desire that a really elementary treatise on the subject should soon be published.
'I regret that I have so imperfectly fulfilled this last request of my revered friend. When it was made I was already engaged, along with Sir W. Thomson, in the laborious work of preparing a large Treatise on Natural Philosophy. The present volume has thus been written under very disadvantageous circumstances, especially as I have not found time to work up the mass of materials which I had originally collected for it, but which I had not put into a fit state for publication. I hope, however, that I have to some extent succeeded in producing a thoroughly elementary work, intelligible to any ordinary student; and that the numerous examples I have given, though not specially chosen so as to display the full merits of Quaternions, will yet sufficiently shew their admirable simplicity and naturalness to induce the reader to attack the Lectures and the Elements; where he will find, in profusion, stores of valuable results, and of elegant yet powerful analytical investigations, such as are contained in the writings of but a very few of the greatest mathematicians. For a succinct account of the steps by which Hamilton was led to the invention of Quaternions, and for other interesting information regarding that remarkable genius, I may refer to a slight sketch of his life and works in the North British Review for September 1866.
It will be found that I have not servilely followed even so great a master, although dealing with a subject which is entirely his own. I cannot, of course, tell in every case what I have gathered from his published papers, or from his voluminous correspondence, and what I may have made out for myself. Some theorems and processes which I have given, though wholly my own, in the sense of having been made out for myself before the publication of the Elements, I have since found there. Others also may be, for I have not yet read that tremendous volume completely, since much of it bears on developments unconnected with Physics. But I have endeavoured throughout to point out to the reader all the more important parts of the work which I know to be wholly due to Hamilton. A great part, indeed, may be said to be obvious to any one who has mastered the preliminaries; still I think that, in the
two last Chapters especially, a good deal of original matter will be found.
'The volume is essentially a working one, and, particularly in the later Chapters, is rather a collection of examples than a detailed treatise on a mathematical method. I have constantly aimed at avoiding too great extension; and in pursuance of this object have omitted many valuable elementary portions of the subject. One of these, the treatment of Quaternion logarithms and exponentials, I greatly regret not having given. But if I had printed all that seemed to me of use or interest to the student, I might easily have rivalled the bulk of one of Hamilton's volumes. The beginner is recommended merely to read the first five Chapters, then to work at Chapters VI, VII, VIII (to which numerous easy Examples are appended). After this he may work at the first five, with their (more difficult) Examples; and the remainder of the book should then present no difficulty.
'Keeping always in view, as the great end of every mathematical method, the physical applications, I have endeavoured to treat the subject as much as possible from a geometrical instead of an analytical point of view. Of course, if we premise the properties of i,j, k merely, it is possible to construct from them the whole system* ; just as we deal with the imaginary of Algebra, or, to take a closer analogy, just as Hamilton himself dealt with Couples, Triads, and Sets. This may be interesting to the pure analyst, but it is repulsive to the physical student, who should be led to look upon i, j, k from the very first as geometric realities, not as algebraic imaginaries.
'The most striking peculiarity of the Calculus is that multiplication is not generally commutative, i.e. that qr is in general different from rq, r and q being quaternions. Still it is to be remarked that something similar is true, in the ordinary coordinate methods, of operators and functions: and therefore the student is not wholly unprepared to meet it. No one is puzzled by the fact that log.cos.x
* This has been done by Hamilton himself, as one among many methods he has employed; and it is also the foundation of a memoir by M. Allégret, entitled Essai sur le Calcul des Quaternions (Paris, 1862).
is not equal to cos.log.x, or that
is not equal toy.
Sometimes, indeed, this rule is most absurdly violated, for it is usual to take cos2x as equal to (cos x)2, while cos ̄1 is not equal to (cos x)-1. No such incongruities appear in Quaternions; but what is true of operators and functions in other methods, that they are not generally commutative, is in Quaternions true in the multiplication of (vector) coordinates.
It will be observed by those who are acquainted with the Calculus that I have, in many cases, not given the shortest or simplest proof of an important proposition. This has been done with the view of including, in moderate compass, as great a variety of methods as possible. With the same object I have endeavoured to supply, by means of the Examples appended to each Chapter, hints (which will not be lost to the intelligent student) of farther developments of the Calculus. Many of these are due to Hamilton, who, in spite of his great originality, was one of the most excellent examiners any University can boast of.
It must always be remembered that Cartesian methods are mere particular cases of Quaternions, where most of the distinctive features have disappeared; and that when, in the treatment of any particular question, scalars have to be adopted, the Quaternion solution becomes identical with the Cartesian one. Nothing therefore is ever lost, though much is generally gained, by employing Quaternions in preference to ordinary methods. In fact, even when Quaternions degrade to scalars, they give the solution of the most general statement of the problem they are applied to, quite independent of any limitations as to choice of particular cöordinate
There is one very desirable object which such a work as this may possibly fulfil. The University of Cambridge, while seeking to supply a real want (the deficiency of subjects of examination for mathematical honours, and the consequent frequent introduction of the wildest extravagance in the shape of data for "Problems"), is in danger of making too much of such elegant trifles as Trilinear