A Surveryor Devised the Complex Plane

The complex plane, essential to the understanding of complex numbers and vector analysis, was devised by a Norwegian born surveyor, Caspar Wessel.  His interest in mathematics was concurrent with his employment as a surveyor and cartographer, while his academic training was in Law at the University of Copenhagen.

Wessel published only one paper in mathematics, and that was in 1799, but this work was later translated and republished earned him a place as a world class mathematician.  His paper introduced the geometry of complex numbers on a complex plane, very much aided the understanding and analysis of complex numbers, but his fame in mathematics was posthumous.  In fact during his lifetime he was only honored for his significant contributions to the surveying efforts of Denmark.

It was Wessel’s experience in surveying and cartography that directed his thinking about     complex numbers and their geometrical interpretation.  He lived from 1745 to 1818.

I guess the take away message is that it is not only the “professional mathematicians” who are contributors to the growth of the field.  The alternative perspective of the “amateur mathematician” is very much needed.


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