The earliest uses of trigonometric functions were related to the chords of a circle, and the recognition that the length of the chord subtended by a given angle x was (in modern terms) 2sin(x/2). The Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus produced the first known table of chords in 140 BC. His work was further developed by astronomers Menelaus (ca. AD 100) and Ptolemy (ca. AD 100), who relied on Babylonian observations and traditions.
Classical trigonometry
The word trigonometry comes from the Greek words trigonon (“triangle”) and metron (“to measure”). Until about the 16th century, trigonometry was chiefly concerned with computing the numerical values of the missing parts of a triangle (or any shape that can be dissected into triangles) when the values of other parts were given. For example, if the lengths of two sides of a triangle and the measure of the enclosed angle are known, the third side and the two remaining angles can be calculated. Such calculations distinguish trigonometry from geometry, which mainly investigates qualitative relations. Of course, this distinction is not always absolute: the Pythagorean theorem, for example, is a statement about the lengths of the three sides in a right triangle and is thus quantitative in nature. Still, in its original form, trigonometry was by and large an offspring of geometry; it was not until the 16th century that the two became separate branches of mathematics.
