I wondered if back in the time of ancient Greeks mathematicians, 3D geometry was discovered as result of plane geometry? (Was there anything in the axioms of plane geometry that indicated existence of 3D geometry?) or was 3D geometry a familiar concept already and there were simply attempts to find its axioms?

Basically, at the time of ancient Greeks mathematicians was geometry discovered mathematically or was it familiar concepts for which axioms were derived?

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    $\begingroup$ Everyday experience is full with 3D objects: solids, etc. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2018 at 7:14
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    $\begingroup$ Already Hippasus of Mentapontus, the discoverer of the irrational, is said to have inscribed the dodecahedron into the sphere about 450 BC. Before, in Egypt, the volumes of pyramids have been measured. $\endgroup$
    – Franz Kurz
    Jan 15, 2018 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think I've thought about this before, but in doing so now it seems to me that 2D geometry might be a later development, being an abstraction that is further removed from the real word than 3D geometry. Here I'm not thinking of formal geometry axioms and such, or even mensuration, but rather much earlier and more primitive ideas such as drawings of 3D objects on cave walls and giving directions by using a stick to draw diagrams on the ground. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2018 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ Monge (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaspard_Monge#Biography) active from 1770 to 1810, should be mentionned for 1) his invention of Descriptive Geometry (no longer used now) 2) An amazing mastering of Analytic Geometry in 3D. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2018 at 6:17

3 Answers 3


Three-dimensional Geometry is what the last three books of Euclid's Elements are about. No, it was not discovered mathematically, at least not in sense that it was seen as a generalization of two-dimensional Geometry. Already in ancient Egypt and Babylon it was known how to compute the volume of a truncated quadrangular pyramed, for instance, long before axioms were introduced in Geometry. What Euclid added was an axiomatic approach to an already known subject, besides, possibly, adding a few new theorems of his own.


It is not known how two-dimensional or three-dimensional geometry were discovered. All we have are some legends recorded by the people who lived centuries after these discoveries. It is quite plausible that 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional geometry were discovered simultaneously.

One of the legends says that Thales measured the height of an Egyptian pyramid. It gives no detail about how exactly he did it, but it is quite possible that he had to use some geometry in space. (Thales was probably the earliest mathematician on whom we have any record, but his work did not survive and details which are mentioned by later writers are unclear).

  • $\begingroup$ According to my information Thales was taught by Egyptian priests how to measure the height: Look when your shadow is as long as you. Then same holds for the pyramid. Later on he possibly extended this method to the basic proportionality theorem. However all of this is plane geometry. According to Eudemos' first catalogue of mathematicians, Pythagoras was the first mathematician. Thales had not yet "the proof". hs-augsburg.de/homes/mueckenh/HI/HI03.PPT $\endgroup$
    – Franz Kurz
    Jan 20, 2018 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ And according to the information from the ancient sources, Thales SURPRISED Egyptian priests when he explained them how to measure the height of a pyramid. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2018 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ Diogenes Laertios / Pamphila report that Thales has learnt in Egypt. Considering the fact that the Greek before 600 BC knew next to nothing and the Egypts had several thousands years of high culture, this appears convincing. Also his prediction of the solar eclipsis will Thales hardly have accomplished from his own research. $\endgroup$
    – Franz Kurz
    Jan 20, 2018 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ Research on history of mathematics shows that Egyptian mathematics was on very primitive level, so historians wonder "what could they possibly teach Thales?" Greek sources indeed mention that Thales (and Pithagoras) traveled to Egypt, but they were written hundreds years after the events, by non-mathematicians, so modern historians do not assign much weight to this information. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2018 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, it seems as if you knew only the less informed "modern historians". The written sources of old Egyptian mathematics give another picture. The ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to develop and solve second-degree (quadratic) equations. Here are some sources quoted: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_mathematics See in particular the section about geometry. $\endgroup$
    – Franz Kurz
    Jan 21, 2018 at 9:19

It wasn't really discovered in a mathematical sense of "exploration of higher dimensions" but more as a result of everyday experiences.

Euclidean "plane" is classic 2D Geometry - studying what can be done with lines/triangles and circles, the primitive geometric elements, and deriving various proofs. This is not clear from everyday experiences.

You don't find perfect triangles in nature. They're a geometrical construct that uses the concept of a line (which itself is not "well defined" by modern standards in The Elements). So, the study of 2D geometry does require creative thought and application of deductive logic/proofs, constructions with straight-edge and compass (for the most part).

However, we see the world in 3 dimensions. To give "perfect meaning" to shapes, they used the 2D analogs and built what we call "surfaces of revolution" to define some basic shapes they were familiar with (mostly owing to their experiences with pottery perhaps):

  • Cone: A right triangle is rotated about one of it's 'right' sides
  • Cylinder: A rectangle rotated around it's central axis or just around it's sides (sort of equivalent)
  • Sphere: Circle rotated around it's diameter.

In theory you could just rotate any primitive shape and get a corresponding 3D shape. We've lost Euclid's book on Conics so we don't know if they ever rotated those to get some interesting shapes. The cube was just the most primitive shape. But I'm sure they made some vases in those days so I'd conjecture they did something :)

They studied some "other shapes" like the platonic solids, the various "hedrons" (tetra-, dodeca-, icosa- ...) since they combined symmetrical shapes to get interesting 3D objects.

So, they just analyzed the shapes and explored the corresponding 2D counterparts i.e., areas in 2D implied volumes in 3D. They concluded that volumes are proportional to the "cube" of the "variable" i.e., length of radius/side of a cone/cube, since areas are proportional to the "squares" in the 2D world. Finding exact formulae was a separate thing (e.g., for a sphere)

Eudoxus had conjectured that the volume of a pyramid is $\frac{1}{3}$rd that of the enclosed "cylinder" i.e., a cube. Euclid 'perfected' this method of exhaustion as we call it, and published a clean proof in his books.

If you read the elements you'll see, that 3D analysis was a natural extension owing to everyday experiences. They proved what they could and what made most sense "by analyzing" shapes or cutting them (e.g., you'd always get an ellipse if you cut a cylinder diagonally across it's height).

The advantage of this "study" was applications to architecture I believe but nothing beyond that. The greeks firmly believed in a world they could "perceive" and hence they spent time analyzing that, even in their mathematical endeavors. But I don't think they did it as an exploration of higher dimension math.


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