A vector is what is needed to "carry" the point A to the point B; the Latin word vector means "carrier". It was first used by 18th century astronomers investigating planet rotation around the Sun. The magnitude of the vector is the distance between the two points and the direction refers to the direction of displacement from A to B. Many algebraic operations on real numbers such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and negation have close analogues for vectors, operations which obey the familiar algebraic laws of commutativity, associativity, and distributivity. These operations and associated laws qualify Euclidean vectors as an example of the more generalized concept of vectors defined simply as elements of a vector space.
Vectors play an important role in physics: the velocity and acceleration of a moving object and the forces acting on it can all be described with vectors. Many other physical quantities can be usefully thought of as vectors. Although most of them do not represent distances (except, for example, position or displacement), their magnitude and direction can still be represented by the length and direction of an arrow. The mathematical representation of a physical vector depends on the coordinate system used to describe it. Other vector-like objects that describe physical quantities and transform in a similar way under changes of the coordinate system include pseudovectors and tensors.
The concept of vector, as we know it today, evolved gradually over a period of more than 200 years. About a dozen people made significant contributions.
Giusto Bellavitis abstracted the basic idea in 1835 when he established the concept of equipollence. Working in a Euclidean plane, he made equipollent any pair of line segments of the same length and orientation. Essentially he realized an equivalence relation on the pairs of points (bipoints) in the plane and thus erected the first space of vectors in the plane.:52–4
The term vector was introduced by William Rowan Hamilton as part of a quaternion, which is a sum q = s + v of a Real number s (also called scalar) and a 3-dimensional vector. Like Bellavitis, Hamilton viewed vectors as representative of classes of equipollent directed segments. As complex numbers use an imaginary unit to complement the real line, Hamilton considered the vector v to be the imaginary part of a quaternion:
Several other mathematicians developed vector-like systems in the middle of the nineteenth century, including Augustin Cauchy, Hermann Grassmann, August Möbius, Comte de Saint-Venant, and Matthew O'Brien. Grassmann's 1840 work Theorie der Ebbe und Flut (Theory of the Ebb and Flow) was the first system of spatial analysis similar to today's system and had ideas corresponding to the cross product, scalar product and vector differentiation. Grassmann's work was largely neglected until the 1870s.