[SIGCIS-Members] Origin of "vector" in vector graphics

Sam Kellogg samkellogg at gmail.com
Wed Feb 24 16:19:52 PST 2021

Hello Bernard, all,

Likewise enjoying eavesdropping on this thread! Perhaps this is already on
everyone's radar (more bad puns) but Michael J. Crowe's book *A History of
Vector Analysis: The Evolution of the Idea of a Vectorial System* is a
challenging and thorough work in the history of math; while it doesn't get
into graphics (or even digital computers) as far as I recall, it'd be a
good place to turn on the notion of the vector itself.

You might also take a look at this paper by Arthur Bryson, Walter Denham,
and Stuart Dryfus (control theorists working in aeronautics in the 1960's),
which I was looking at in the context of the history of optimization.
Again, maybe not directly relevant, but this was in an aeronautics journal,
I know for certain they were making extensive use of computers at the time,
and "vectors" are everywhere, so perhaps you are on to something?
Bryson, Arthur E., Walter F. Denham, and Stuart E. Dreyfus. “Optimal
Programming Problems with Inequality Constraints I: Necessary Conditions
for Extremal Solutions.” AIAA Journal 1, no. 11 (1963): 2544–50.

For what its worth, I started digging into Bryson and Denham's work for a
forthcoming essay on the history of metaphors used to describe gradient
optimization—happy to share some of that off-list.

All best,

On Wed, Feb 24, 2021 at 4:23 PM Rory Solomon <solomonr at newschool.edu> wrote:

> Hi Bernie,
> This might be slightly *ahem* orthogonal to the question of vector
> graphics, but depending how widely you wish to dilate your sense of
> "vector" here, it might make sense to also consider two other
> tangentially-related senses: the vector data structure, and the vector CPU.
> In some programming language contexts, the array data structure for
> holding a list of values was typically created of a fixed size. If the
> programmer wanted to grow the size of a list of numbers, memory management
> techniques would have to be utilized to find and allocate additional
> storage space. The idea of the vector data structure was a
> dynamically-sized array capable of doing that memory management, in a
> sense, automatically, hiding those implementation details from the
> programmer. This behavior has become the norm in most high-level
> programming languages, so I think the term vector in this sense is mostly
> obsolete. But I've always wondered about the origins of this term for this
> data structure. My best guess is that a vector data structure could be
> evocative of a mathematical vector in the sense that it can grow, or, scale
> – like how the magnitude of a mathematical vector can be increased when
> multiplied by a scalar. It doesn't strike me as an obvious coinage to use
> for this concept, so I wonder if maybe there is some link in which early
> developers of the vector data structure for some reason or another had the
> mathematical concept of the vector fresh in the mind and ready to deploy as
> a metaphor.
> In a somewhat related sense, the vector CPU was a technique in parallel
> processing whereby machine instructions, instead of specifying a single
> memory location to operate on, would specify a memory location and a
> quantity, corresponding to the number of adjacent values in memory on which
> to execute the given operation. The idea here was that loading values into
> registers to operate on from memory became a bottleneck, so if algorithms
> could be coded such that machine instructions could operate on many
> contiguous values at once, those values could all be pre-loaded into
> registers at once, instead of having to go to memory for each instruction.
> My guess is that the term "vector" pertains here because a vector-based
> machine instruction would include not just a memory location, but a memory
> location and the number of contiguous values to operate on – metaphorically
> evoking the way that a mathematical vector is often represented by two
> values: a direction and a magnitude. Again, it does not seem like a
> particularly obvious term to apply, so I wonder if there is some reason why
> this is the one that developers decided to use.
> I'm enjoying all the discussion on this thread!
> Best,
> Rory
> --
> Rory Solomon, PhD (he / him)
> Assistant Professor & Director of Code as a Liberal Art
> Eugene Lang College, The New School
> solomonr at newschool.edu | @rorys
> On Sat, Feb 20, 2021 at 3:27 AM Bernard Geoghegan <
> bernardgeoghegan2010 at u.northwestern.edu> wrote:
>> Hi SIGCISers,
>> Can anyone advise on the origin of the term “vector graphics.”
>> Clearly, it literally describes a production of “vectors” on the screen
>> by a concrete line-drawing technology. However, I’m wondering if there were
>> multiple senses in that term initially. Specifically, looking through SAGE
>> documentation from the 1950s and 1960s, esp, accounts of if operator
>> displays, “vector” describes the physical trajectory of planes on the
>> display. As SAGE was also a key source for early graphical interfaces, I’m
>> wondering of the term “vector graphics” had a double connotation, as an
>> analogy between the flight paths and the manner of illustrating graphics.
>> It’s not earth shaking, but it’s etymologically neat-o if one can trace
>> “vector graphics” to multiple connotations at its coinage.
>> Best, b
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Sam P. Kellogg
he/him // MCC, NYU <http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/mcc/> // samkellogg.com
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