Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Vectors Versus Quaternions


HAVING a vivid recollection of the pleasure I derived born Prof. Gibbs's attacks upon the quaternionic system in the rather one-sided discussion that took place about two years ago in this journal, I have delayed replying to the letters of Profs. MacAulay and Tait, from an expectation that Prof. Gibbs would have something to say. In this I have not been mistaken; and, as there is a general agreement between us on the whole, I have merely to add some supplementary remarks. Prof. MacAulay refers to me as having raised the question again. I can assure him it has never been dropped. Apart from the one-sided discussion, it has been a live question with Prof. Gibbs and myself since about 1882, and is now more alive than ever. I cannot help thinking that Prof. MacAulay's letter was overhastily written, and feel sure that if he knew as much about the views and methods of those to whom he appeals as he does about Quaternions, he would have written it somewhat differently, or perhaps not have written it at all, from a conviction of the uselessness of his appeal. There is no question of suicide with us on the contrary, quite the reverse. I am asked whether the “spoonfeeding,” as he terms it, of Maxwell, Fitzgerald, &c., is not good enough for me. Why, of course not. It is quaternionic, and that is the real point concerned. Again, he thinks nothing of the inscrutable negativity of the square of a vector in Quaternions; here, again, is the root of the evil. As regards a uniformity of notation amongst antiquaternionists, I dare say that will come in time, but the proposal is premature. We have fist to get people to study the matter and think about it. I have developed my system, such as it is, quite independently of Prof. Gibbs. Nevertheless, I would willingly adopt his notation (as I have adopted his dyadical notion of the linear operator) if I found it better. But I do not. I have been particularly careful in my notation to harmonise as closely as possible with ordinary mathematical ideas, processes, and notation; I do not think Gibbs has succeeded so well. But that matters little now; the really important thing is to depose the quaternion from the masterful position it has so long usurped, whereby the diffusion of vector analysis has been so lamentably impeded. I have been, until lately, very tender and merciful towards quaternionic fads, thinking it possible that Prof. Tait might modify his obstructive attitude. But there is seemingly no chance of that. Whether this be so or not, I think it is practically certain that there is no chance whatever for Quaternions as a practical system of mathematics for the use of physicists. How is it possible, when it is so utterly discordant with physical notions, besides being at variance with common mathematics? A vector is not a quaternion; it never was, and never will be, and its square is not negative; the supposed proofs are perfectly rotten at the core. Vector-analysis should have a purely vectorial basis, and the quaternion will then, if wanted at all, merely come in as an occasional auxiliary, as a special kind of operator. It is to Prof. Tait's devotion to his master that we should look for the reason of the little progress made in the last 20 years in spreading vector-analysis.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

HEAVISIDE, O. Vectors Versus Quaternions. Nature 47, 533–534 (1893).

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing