The History of Newton’s Method

Newton’s method was described by Isaac Newton in De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas (written in 1669, published in 1711 by William Jones) and in De metodis fluxionum et serierum infinitarum (written in 1671, translated and published as Method of Fluxions in 1736 by John Colson). However, his description differs substantially from the modern description given above: Newton applies the method only to polynomials. He does not compute the successive approximations xn, but computes a sequence of polynomials and only at the end, he arrives at an approximation for the root x. Finally, Newton views the method as purely algebraic and fails to notice the connection with calculus. Isaac Newton probably derived his method from a similar but less precise method by Vieta. The essence of Vieta’s method can be found in the work of the Persian mathematician, Sharaf al-Din al-Tusi, while his successor Jamshīd al-Kāshī used a form of Newton’s method to solve xPN = 0 to find roots of N (Ypma 1995). A special case of Newton’s method for calculating square roots was known much earlier and is often called the Babylonian method.

Newton’s method was used by 17th century Japanese mathematician Seki Kōwa to solve single-variable equations, though the connection with calculus was missing.

Newton’s method was first published in 1685 in A Treatise of Algebra both Historical and Practical by John Wallis. In 1690, Joseph Raphson published a simplified description in Analysis aequationum universalis. Raphson again viewed Newton’s method purely as an algebraic method and restricted its use to polynomials, but he describes the method in terms of the successive approximations xn instead of the more complicated sequence of polynomials used by Newton. Finally, in 1740, Thomas Simpson described Newton’s method as an iterative method for solving general nonlinear equations using fluxional calculus, essentially giving the description above. In the same publication, Simpson also gives the generalization to systems of two equations and notes that Newton’s method can be used for solving optimization problems by setting the gradient to zero.

Arthur Cayley in 1879 in The Newton-Fourier imaginary problem was the first who noticed the difficulties in generalizing the Newton’s method to complex roots of polynomials with degree greater than 2 and complex initial values. This opened the way to the study of the theory of iterations of rational functions.

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