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The ordered regiment of the minus sign: Off-beat mathematics in Harriot's manuscripts

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The manuscripts of Harriot discussed in this paper are essentially rough notes marginal to his systematic treatment of algebra, of which a small part was published posthumously. The central theme is the sign-rule for multiplication; but the incidentals open up an aspect of symbolism in mathematics entirely new for the time. A more restricted aspect of the same theme was touched on by Commandino in his Euclid , quoted by Harriot as rightly blaming ‘those that thinke that minus per minus shal produce plus'; Commandino's authority was Cardano, in a similarly marginal departure from his great Ars magna , the de Aliza , which Harriot also cites in the same reference. The ostensible motivation, to preserve intact the Euclidean tradition in geometry, plays a very minor role in Harriot's notes. The basic aim, to elude the fatal link with imaginaries, they do touch on. More dimly underlying the arguments are the crucial logical facets of the problem, which Harriot faced with a greater conceptual clarity, formulating in words, however, only his own conclusion: the choice of sign-rule is the user's—a fact not fully recognised by mathematicians generally until the 19th century.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Mathematics, Imperial College, Queen's Gate, London, SW7 5HH, England

Publication date: 1980-03-01

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