Leibniz's Notation - History


The Newton-Leibniz approach to infinitesimal calculus was introduced in the 17th century. While Newton did not have a standard notation for integration, Leibniz began using the character. He based the character on the Latin word summa ("sum"), which he wrote ſumma with the elongated s commonly used in Germany at the time. This use first appeared publicly in his paper De Geometria, published in Acta Eruditorum of June 1686, but he had been using it in private manuscripts at least since 1675.

In the 19th century, mathematicians ceased to take Leibniz's notation for derivatives and integrals literally. That is, mathematicians felt that the concept of infinitesimals contained logical contradictions in its development. A number of 19th century mathematicians (Cauchy, Weierstrass and others) found logically rigorous ways to treat derivatives and integrals without infinitesimals using limits as shown above. Nonetheless, Leibniz's notation is still in general use. Although the notation need not be taken literally, it is usually simpler than alternatives when the technique of separation of variables is used in the solution of differential equations. In physical applications, one may for example regard f(x) as measured in meters per second, and dx in seconds, so that f(x) dx is in meters, and so is the value of its definite integral. In that way the Leibniz notation is in harmony with dimensional analysis.

In the 1960s, building upon earlier work by Edwin Hewitt and Jerzy Łoś, Abraham Robinson developed rigorous mathematical explanations for Leibniz' intuitive notion of the "infinitesimal," and developed non-standard analysis based on these ideas. Robinson's methods are used by only a minority of mathematicians. Jerome Keisler wrote a first-year-calculus textbook based to Robinson's approach.

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