So I apologize if this question seems a bit nit-picky, but it has bothered me for a while. Usually when a coordinate system is represented in two-dimensions, the x-axis is pointing towards what might be considered "3 o' clock", while the y-axis is at midnight.

two dimensional coordinate system

However, most representations of 3-dimensional space place the x-axis in the "6 o' clock" direction, and the Y axis in the "3 o'clock" direction.(if you were to lay the clock on the x-y plane).three dimensional coordinate system

It does not seem like the intuitive way of representing things. Of course a person has the liberty to arrange the axes in whatever fashion they see fit, but the standard seems to be the way shown above. I wonder who thought it was a good idea to arrange the axes in this fashion, and why they chose to do so.

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    $\begingroup$ Afaik it might be even region-dependent. I think any physicist would say for that, it is just a casual selection and all the coordinate systems are equally valid (more exactly, only half of it due to chirality problems). $\endgroup$
    – peterh
    Commented Apr 30, 2019 at 6:07
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    $\begingroup$ It is "quite standard"; see Axonometry. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2019 at 7:55
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure this is a history question. The alternative arrangement, with x where y is, and y at the opposite of x, is also widely used, especially in Europe. My guess is that the preference for this arrangement comes from the fact that x and y directions are more widely separated, making the figures with additional elements less clogged. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 30, 2019 at 8:22
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    $\begingroup$ Just wait until you see the difference between optical raytracing orientation versus aircraft axes orientation! It's all a matter of custom. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 30, 2019 at 12:33

2 Answers 2


So I think I know the answer to this.

First, note that both coordinate systems relegate the vertical axis to the last coordinate (y in 2D, z in 3D); that this feels 'natural' is perhaps a result of Latin script being written horizontally. Now while this fully defines the 2D coordinate system, there are still two possibilities for the 3D system: a so-called left-handed system and a right-handed system.

3D coordinate systems

The reason (I believe) that the right-handed system is standard in both mathematics and physics is that it agrees with the definition of the vector cross product, which by convention follows the right-hand rule: $\mathbb{x} \times \mathbb{y} = \mathbb{z}$. This definition is fundamental to vector algebra and much of physics.

right-hand rule

This definition, in turn, follows directly from Hamilton's 1843 formulation or quaternions, defined by $ij=k$, $jk=i$ and $ki=j$, by identifying $i, j, k$ with $x, y, z$. Had Hamilton instead defined them by $ji=k$, $kj=i$ and $ik=j$, there would likely have been a left-handed rule instead.

Now the final question of why representations of right-handed 3D coordinates typically show the y axis at "3 o'clock" and the x axis "somewhere past 6 o'clock" (like the picture below, but unlike the first picture), I expect that's simply to separate the axes on the page as far as possible.

3D coordinate system


I'd say that the arrangement of axes in 3d is due to the conventions we have for the cross product, as the cross product U x V is normal to the plane spanned by the vectors $u$ and $v$; normal, suggests vertical or perpendicularity and hence we have the z-axis pointing towards 12 O'Clock.

It is worth noting that the diagrams you've drawn are all for spatial diagrams, when one of the axes is time then diagrams modelling classical mechanics usually have time along the 3 O'clock direction and height at the 12 O'clock direction.

However this convention is reversed in special and general relativity.

I suspect, the first convention is simply due to the fact that when we model the trajectory of a thrown stone then this trajectory follows a parabola, and this is the same curve that is drawn on the diagram using this convention. Obviously this is of no relevance to SR/GR.

A final observation is that axes actually define charts and whilst the coordinate frame is special in that the axes are all perpendicular, the notion of a manifold uses charts in a democratic sense - all charts are equally important.


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