What is the origin of the determinant in linear algebra?

We often learn in a standard linear algebra course that a determinant is a number associated with a square matrix. We can define the determinant also by saying that it is the sum of all the possible configurations picking an element from a matrix from different rows and different columns multiplied by (-1) or (1) according to the number inversions.

But how is this notion of a ‘determinant’ derived? What is a determinant, actually? I searched up the history of the determinant and it looks like it predates matrices. How did the modern definition of a determinant come about? Why do we need to multiply some terms of the determinant sum by (-1) based on the number of inversions? I just can’t understand the motivation that created determinants. We can define determinants, and see their properties, but I want to understand how they were defined and why they were defined to get a better idea of their important and application.


I normally have two ways of viewing determinants without appealing to higher-level math like multilinear forms.

The first is geometric, and I do think that most vector calculus classes nowadays should teach this interpretation. That is that, given vectors v1,,vnRn dictating the sides of an n-dimensional parallelepiped, the volume of this parallelepiped is given by det, where A = [v_1 \ldots v_n] is the matrix whose columns are given by those vectors. We can then view the determinant of a square matrix as measuring the volume-scaling property of the matrix as a linear map on \mathbb{R}^n. From here, it would be clear why \det(A) = 0 is equivalent to A not being invertible – if A takes a set with positive volume and sends it to a set with zero volume, then A has some direction along which it “flattens” points, which would precisely be the null space of A. Unfortunately, I’m under the impression that this interpretation is at least semi-modern, but I think this is one of the cases where the modern viewpoint might be better to teach new students than the old viewpoint.

The old viewpoint is that the determinant is simply the result of trying to solve the linear system Ax = b when A is square. This is most likely how the determinant was first discovered. To derive the determinant this way, write down the generic matrix and then proceed by Gaussian elimination. This means you have to choose nonzero leading entries in each row (the pivots) and use them to eliminate subsequent entries below. Each time you eliminate the rows, you have to multiply by a common denominator, so after you do this n times, you’ll end up with the sum of all the permutations of entries from different rows and columns merely by virtue of having multiplied out to get common denominators. The (-1)^k sign flip comes from the fact that at each stage in Gaussian elimination, you’re subtracting. So on the first step you’re subtracting, but on the second step you’re subtracting a subtraction, and so forth. At the very end, by Gaussian elimination, you’ll obtain an echelon form (upper triangular), and one knows that if any of the diagonal entries are zero, then the system is not uniquely solvable; the last diagonal entry will precisely be the determinant times the product of the values of previously used pivots (up to a sign, perhaps). Since the pivots chosen are always nonzero, then it will not affect whether or not the last entry is zero, and so you can divide them out.

EDIT: It isn’t as simple as I thought, though it will work out if you keep track of what nonzero values you multiply your rows by in Gaussian elimination. My apologies if I mislead anyone.

Source : Link , Question Author : user8210 , Answer Author : Christopher A. Wong

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