The History of Trigonometry

In math classes, we are so engrossed in the mathematics itself that we rarely take the time to acknowledge the rich history of how this knowledge came about. In the case of trigonometry, a quick look at even the Wikipedia page titled ‘History of Trigonometry’ at gives one a glimpse into the contributions of many cultures and people that led to the present form of the subject. This history is full of stories about the evolution and communication of ideas across continents and languages, fascinating personalities, rivalries and politics, religious persecution, and so on. When we look beneath the surface, we see that even mathematics – a subject that can feel devoid of humanity to some, and disconnected to other aspects of the human experience – has, in fact, a deep human stamp all over it.

I’ll share just a couple of examples:

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Do you ever wonder why we use the word ‘sine’ in trigonometry? Aryabhata ( 475–550), an Indian mathematician and astronomer, is believed to have been the first to use the concept of sine. He called it ardha-jya (meaning “half chord” in Sanskrit), or jya or jiva for short. Later, when Muslim scholars translated this work into Arabic, they retained the word jiva without translating its meaning, but due to linguistic characteristics of Arabic, jiva came to be pronounced jiba, or even jaib, which, in Arabic, means “fold” or “bay”. When the Arab translation was later translated into Latin, jaib became sinus, the Latin word for bay. The word sinus first appeared in the writings of Gherardo of Cremona (c. 1114–87), who translated many of the Greek texts into Latin. Other writers followed, and soon the word sinus, or sine, was used in the mathematical literature throughout Europe. The symbol sin was first used in 1624 by Edmund Gunter, an English minister and instrument maker.

A few weeks ago, I came across a video that discussed the fascinating history of the use of trigonometry to come up with a quite accurate measure of the height of Mt. Everest – off only by about 0.1% compared to modern-day estimates. This was done in the early 1800s, using essentially a 100-ft chain and a perambulator (a wheel used as an odometer), and lots of care to avoid errors that would have a compounding effect – long before GPS, lasers, radio communication – against the backdrop of colonial geopolitics! Here’s the link to the video (~11 minutes), in case you’re intrigued:

These are just two examples.

This discussion assignment is quite open-ended. Look into the history of trigonometry, or even widen it to include all of mathematics. Find a story that you find compelling; that’s worth remembering. Share it here. Use about 150-200 words. Include your source.

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