The History of the Pythagorean Theorem

by Samantha Reagan Selman

Home School Assignment September 22, 2011

What is The Pythagorean Theorem?

You may have learned about the Pythagorean theorem some years ago when you were practicing basic algebra. But have you ever thought about the history behind the mathematics? What did a religion have to do with the theorem? This theorem was probably conceived by Babylonian mathematicians long before Pythagoras became aware of it, despite the theorem being his namesake. And exactly who was Pythagoras? Who were the Pythagoreans? In this presentation we will discuss the unique history of the Pythagorean theorem, a simple proof, and the theorem itself.

This is the Pythagorean theorem: the simple equation that states “the sum of the length of side 'a' squared and the length of side 'b' squared equals the length of the hypotenuse ('c') squared”. The theorem could be translated into the equation below, as well: ____ c= √a²+b² Which is read as “the length of the hypotenuse equals the square root of the sum of the lengths of side 'a' and side 'b'”. These equations are used to find the length of the hypotenuse, represented by the letter 'c'.

_____ a= √c² – b² But what if you do not want to find the length of the hypotenuse? What if you need to find the length of side 'a' or side 'b'? Just use the equation above. This is read, “the length of side a equals the square root of the difference of the lengths of the hypotenuse and side b”.

From these equations you must replace the variables with the known lengths of the sides. For example, if you know side a has a length of three inches and side b has a length of four inches, the simplification process would proceed as follows: ____ c = √a²+b² ____ → c = √3²+4² _____ → c = √9 + 16 __ → c = √25 → c = 5 inches

The process remains the same for any type of Pythagorean equation. Here is a different problem below, where we are instead trying to find the length of side 'a'. If we know the hypotenuse is five inches long and side 'b' is four inches long, we will find the value of 'a' by finding the square root of the difference of 'c' and 'b'. _____ a = √c² - b² ____ → a = √5² - 4² _____ → a = √25 - 16 _ → a = √9 → a = 3 inches

Now that we know what the Pythagorean theorem is, we will have to provide a proof. This is a proof of the Pythagorean theorem using similar triangles. You see we have two smaller triangles which, together, make up a bigger right triangle.

Image from

So what does all this mean? Put into layman's terms, the altitude (H) drawn to the hypotenuse of the right triangle ABC creates the two similar right triangles (ACH and CBH), each one similar to the original and to each other. Similarity of the triangles leads to the equality of ratios of corresponding sides: a/c = e/a – and – b/c = d/b This can also be written as: a² = c · e – and – b² = c · d Adding these two equations together and simplifying would give us: a² + b² = (c · e) + (c ·d) → a² + b² = c (d + e) → a² + b² = c ( c ) → a² + b² = c² And there you have it … the Pythagorean Theorem!!!

The History Behind the Theorem

Pythagoras was born around 580BC on the island of Samos. He was an Ionian Greek mathematician and philosopher and founded his own religious group called the Pythagoreans. As a youth, he fled to Croton, Calabria in Southern Italy where he was influenced by Thales. Impressed with his skills and abilities, Thales thought that Pythagoras should go to Egypt to study with the priests, which he did. While in Egypt, it is believed that Pythagoras conceived, at least partially, his Pythagorean theorem.

Extracted from Thomas Stanley's book “The History Of Philosophy”

He soon decided to establish his own religious group named the Pythagoreans. The Pythagoreans held the belief that “All is number” and that everything, from music to the movement of the stars, could be reduced to mathematical equations. Pythagoras's followers were divided into two groups: the mathematikoi and the akousmatikoi. The mathematikoi were given Pythagoras's teachings to their full extent, while the akousmatikoi were only given brief, confusing lessons revealed by a veiled Pythagoras. However, there was a price to pay for the mathematikoi in exchange for Pythagoras's teachings. They were not allowed to own any personal belongings, they were restricted to a vegetarian diet, they had to live at the school, and they could not speak except when they sang hymns or recited poetry. The akousmatikoi, on the other hand, were allowed to do about anything they pleased.

At the time, only the Pythagoreans were allowed to know and use the Pythagorean theorem. They were forced to keep the theorem a secret, for if anyone told “the outsiders”, they were punished with death. So it was not until Euclid wrote his book “Elements”, which was written nearly 200 years after the the supposed time Pythagoras revealed the theorem to his followers, that the public learned about the theorem.

Pythagoras soon found himself and his followers having to flee to Tarentum and then to Metapontum to escape prosecution. It is stated that he then starved himself to death, leaving behind no writing of any type. Therefore the only thing left to remind us of Pythagoras is the Pythagorean theorem.

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