Vertex coloring is the starting point of the subject, and other coloring problems can be transformed into a vertex version. For example, an edge coloring of a graph is just a vertex coloring of its line graph, and a face coloring of a plane graph is just a vertex coloring of its dual. However, non-vertex coloring problems are often stated and studied as is. That is partly for perspective, and partly because some problems are best studied in non-vertex form, as for instance is edge coloring.
The convention of using colors originates from coloring the countries of a map, where each face is literally colored. This was generalized to coloring the faces of a graph embedded in the plane. By planar duality it became coloring the vertices, and in this form it generalizes to all graphs. In mathematical and computer representations, it is typical to use the first few positive or nonnegative integers as the "colors". In general, one can use any finite set as the "color set". The nature of the coloring problem depends on the number of colors but not on what they are.
Graph coloring enjoys many practical applications as well as theoretical challenges. Beside the classical types of problems, different limitations can also be set on the graph, or on the way a color is assigned, or even on the color itself. It has even reached popularity with the general public in the form of the popular number puzzle Sudoku. Graph coloring is still a very active field of research.
Note: Many terms used in this article are defined in Glossary of graph theory.
The first results about graph coloring deal almost exclusively with planar graphs in the form of the coloring of maps. While trying to color a map of the counties of England, Francis Guthrie postulated the four color conjecture, noting that four colors were sufficient to color the map so that no regions sharing a common border received the same color. Guthrie’s brother passed on the question to his mathematics teacher Augustus de Morgan at University College, who mentioned it in a letter to William Hamilton in 1852. Arthur Cayley raised the problem at a meeting of the London Mathematical Society in 1879. The same year, Alfred Kempe published a paper that claimed to establish the result, and for a decade the four color problem was considered solved. For his accomplishment Kempe was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and later President of the London Mathematical Society.