Quaternions were introduced by Hamilton in 1843. Important precursors to this work included Euler's four-square identity (1748) and Olinde Rodrigues' parameterization of general rotations by four parameters (1840), but neither of these writers treated the four-parameter rotations as an algebra. Carl Friedrich Gauss had also discovered quaternions in 1819, but this work was not published until 1900.
Hamilton knew that the complex numbers could be interpreted as points in a plane, and he was looking for a way to do the same for points in three-dimensional space. Points in space can be represented by their coordinates, which are triples of numbers, and for many years he had known how to add and subtract triples of numbers. However, Hamilton had been stuck on the problem of multiplication and division for a long time. He could not figure out how to calculate the quotient of the coordinates of two points in space.
The great breakthrough in quaternions finally came on Monday 16 October 1843 in Dublin, when Hamilton was on his way to the Royal Irish Academy where he was going to preside at a council meeting. As he walked along the towpath of the Royal Canal with his wife, the concepts behind quaternions were taking shape in his mind. When the answer dawned on him, Hamilton could not resist the urge to carve the formula for the quaternions,
i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = 1,
into the stone of Brougham Bridge as he paused on it.
On the following day, Hamilton wrote a letter to his friend and fellow mathematician, John T. Graves, describing the train of thought that led to his discovery. This letter was later published in the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, vol. xxv (1844), pp 48995. In the letter, Hamilton states,
And here there dawned on me the notion that we must admit, in some sense, a fourth dimension of space for the purpose of calculating with triples ... An electric circuit seemed to close, and a spark flashed forth.
Hamilton called a quadruple with these rules of multiplication a quaternion, and he devoted most of the remainder of his life to studying and teaching them. Hamilton's treatment is more geometric than the modern approach, which emphasizes quaternions' algebraic properties. He founded a school of "quaternionists", and he tried to popularize quaternions in several books. The last and longest of his books, Elements of Quaternions, was 800 pages long; it was edited by his son William Edwin Hamilton and published shortly after his death.
After Hamilton's death, his student Peter Tait continued promoting quaternions. At this time, quaternions were a mandatory examination topic in Dublin. Topics in physics and geometry that would now be described using vectors, such as kinematics in space and Maxwell's equations, were described entirely in terms of quaternions. There was even a professional research association, the Quaternion Society, devoted to the study of quaternions and other hypercomplex number systems.
From the mid-1880s, quaternions began to be displaced by vector analysis, which had been developed by Josiah Willard Gibbs, Oliver Heaviside, and Hermann von Helmholtz. Vector analysis described the same phenomena as quaternions, so it borrowed some ideas and terminology liberally from the literature of quaternions. However, vector analysis was conceptually simpler and notationally cleaner, and eventually quaternions were relegated to a minor role in mathematics and physics. A side-effect of this transition is that Hamilton's work is difficult to comprehend for many modern readers. Hamilton's original definitions are unfamiliar and his writing style was wordy and difficult to understand.
However, quaternions have had a revival since the late 20th century, primarily due to their utility in describing spatial rotations. The representations of rotations by quaternions are more compact and quicker to compute than the representations by matrices. In addition, unlike Euler angles they are not susceptible to gimbal lock. For this reason, quaternions are used in computer graphics, computer vision, robotics, control theory, signal processing, attitude control, physics, bioinformatics, molecular dynamics, computer simulations, and orbital mechanics. For example, it is common for the attitude control systems of spacecraft to be commanded in terms of quaternions. Quaternions have received another boost from number theory because of their relationships with the quadratic forms.
Since 1989, the Department of Mathematics of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth has organized a pilgrimage, where scientists (including the physicists Murray Gell-Mann in 2002, Steven Weinberg in 2005, and the mathematician Andrew Wiles in 2003) walk from Dunsink Observatory to the Royal Canal bridge. Hamilton's carving is no longer visible.