In mathematics, a hypercomplex number is a traditional term for an element of an algebra over a field where the field is the real numbers or the complex numbers. In the nineteenth century number systems called quaternions, tessarines, coquaternions, biquaternions, and octonions became established concepts in mathematical literature. The concept of a hypercomplex number covered them all, and called for a science to explain and classify them.
The cataloguing project began with Benjamin and Charles Peirce with their list of some linear associative algebras. Most significantly, they identified the nilpotent and the idempotent as useful hypercomplex numbers for classifications. Hurwitz and Frobenius proved theorems that put limits on hypercomplexity: Hurwitz's theorem (normed division algebras), and Frobenius theorem (real division algebras).
It was matrix algebra that harnessed the hypercomplex systems. First, matrices contributed new hypercomplex numbers like 2 × 2 real matrices. Soon the matrix paradigm began to explain the others as they became represented by matrices and their operations. In 1907 Joseph Wedderburn showed that associative hypercomplex systems could be represented by matrices, or direct sums of systems of matrices. From that date the preferred term for a hypercomplex system became associative algebra as seen in the title of Wedderburn’s thesis at University of Edinburgh. Note however, that nonassociative systems like hyperbolic quaternions represent another type of hypercomplex number.
As Hawkins (1972) explains, the hypercomplex numbers are stepping stones to learning about Lie groups and group representation theory. For instance, in 1929 Emmy Noether at Bryn Mawr wrote on "hypercomplex quantities and representation theory". Review of the historic particulars gives body to the generalities of modern theory. In 1973 Kantor and Soldovnikov published a textbook on hypercomplex numbers which was translated in 1989; a reviewer says it has a "highly classical flavour". See K.H. Parshall (1985) for a detailed exposition of the heyday of hypercomplex numbers, including the role of such luminaries as Theodor Molien and Eduard Study. For the transition to modern algebra, Bartel van der Waerden devotes thirty pages to hypercomplex numbers in his History of Algebra (1985).
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