1
CHAOS THEORY BEFORE LORENZ
J. Barkley Rosser, Jr.
Department of Economics
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA 22807
rosserjb@jmu.edu
September 2008
Abstract:
We consider the precursors to the disco
very of sensitive dependence on initial
conditions by Edward Lorenz (1963) in his model of climatic fluid dynamics. This will
focus on work in various disciplines that imply either such sensitivity, irregular
endogenous dynamic patterns, or fractal nature
of an attractor, as is also found in the
attractor underlying the model Lorenz studied. Going from ancient hints in Anaxagoras
through nineteenth century mathematics and physics, the main areas of such development
will be argued to have been in celestial
mechanics,
oscillators, and economics.
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank William (
“
Buz
”
) Brock, the late Reid
Bryson,
Dick Day,
Dee Dechert,
Laura Gardini,
Steve Guastello,
Cars Hommes,
Blake
LeBaron,
Hans

Walter Lorenz,
Benoît Mandelbrot,
Akio Matsumoto,
Bruce Mizrach,
Tönu Puu, Otto Rössler, and Don Saari for useful discussions of the issues in this paper
over a long period of time.
2
Introduction
The late
Edward Lorenz (1963) is justly famous for his discovery “on a coffee
br
eak” of
sensitive dependence on initial conditions
(SDIC), known popularly as the
“butterfly effect,” the most widely agreed upon characteristic of chaotically dynamic
nonlinear systems
,
i
while studying
computer simulations of
a three equation model of
cli
matic fluid dynamics
.
While many think he used this term in his original 1963 paper,
it does not appear there, having been coined by him for a 1972 presentation he made to a
confere
nce on climatology, although he
himself has since speculated that the popu
larity
of the phrase “butterfly effect” has arisen partly due to the vaguely butterfly appearance
of the attractor bearing his name that is implied by the model he studied in his 1963 paper
(Lorenz, 1993).
He has reported that he almost used a seagull ins
tead (Lorenz, 1993, p.
15), noting that it was an old line among meteorologists that a man sneezing in China
could cause people in New York to start shoveling snow (the original butterfly example
being that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could ca
use a tornado in Texas).
While Lorenz’s discovery has achieved widespread attention that it did not
initially receive upon its initial publication is well

deserved outcome
, largely being read
initially by meteorologists and climatologists who did not ful
ly appreciate its broader
mathematical implications
.
ii
Nevertheless, the possibility of SDIC had been realized by
others much earlier, including Maxwell (1876), Hadamard (1898), and Poincaré,
implicitly in a model in 1890 and explicitly and consciously in
1908.
The idea of
fractality also had a long history
preceding him going back at least to Cantor (1883), with
the idea of endogenously erratic dynamics that come close to following periodicity
3
arguably going back as far as the
pre

Socratic Greek philosoph
er,
Anaxagoras,
according
to Rössler (1998
)
, although erratic dynamics were first clearly shown by Cayley (1879)
.
This paper will discuss these earlier foundations and their development that
preceded Lorenz’s important paper of 1963. I shall not discus
s
much of
the work that
came after him in the 1960s and 1970s that would lead to the clearer understanding and
codification of
t
he concept,
iii
eventually resulting in a fad surrounding chaos theory after
the publication of the popular bestseller by
James
Gle
ick (1987), who did much to
publicize Lorenz’s role widely. We shall look more at the development of SDIC,
fractality, and irregularity of dynamics in such areas as pure mathematics, ce
lestial
mechanics,
oscillators, and economics, keeping in mind that mo
st of the people involved
in these earlier developments did not understand
fully
the significance of what they were
doing or how it would relate to this later development we now call chaos theory. Indeed,
many of these figures found the ideas they discove
red or studied to be disturbing and
even embarrassing, often relegating their discussion of them to footnotes or appendices
where they did not clutter up the neater and simpler results that th
ey were focusing on in
the main parts of their pa
p
e
rs and b
ooks
, Poincaré being an
example of this attitude.
The Earliest Predecessors
One can argue that he is stretching in his interpretation, but Otto Rössler (1998, p.
3) argues strongly for the foundational role of Anaxagoras
iv
in his study of the unmixing
by the
mind of a deeply mixed reality, an emergence
of the simple out of the complex
.
“Anaxagoras introduces a technical term…”around motion”
(
perichoresis
)
… He goes to great pains to make clear it is not a circular, a closed,
4
a periodic motion which he has in mi
nd…Anaxagoras single

handedly created the
qualitative mathematical notions used so successfully later by the Poincaré
school: deterministic flow, surface

de

section (cross

section through a flow, i.e. a
recurrence) and
–
most important
–
the notions of mix
ing and unmixing.”
Rössler
goes on to also argue that Anax
agoras had the idea of self

similarity that would
later be associated with fractality, in that the roundabout motion starts in the small and
goes to the large and that “the mind is self

similar (tot
ally similar) both in the large and in
the small” (Anaxagoras, 456 B.C.
E.
, quoted on Rössler, 1998, p. 12).
Yet another figure who has been seen to foreshadow modern chaos theory is the
Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci. In his case it is in some o
f his drawings in
which he depicts wind. These depict spectacular turbulence, and turbulence in fluid
dynamics has long been a central area of study associated with chaos theory, most
notably including the work of Lorenz himself.
Another foreshadowing wa
s in mathematics by Leibniz (1695) in connection with
his independent invention of the calculus. Unlike his rival, Newton, he posited the
possibility of fractional derivatives. These can be seen as predecessors to the later idea of
non

integer dimensions
that is central to fractal geometry.
Finally, while these must be admitted to be rather vague, it has been argued that
the philosophers Kant (Roqué, 1985) and Schelling (Heuser

Kessler, 1992) anticipated
elements of the “dynamicist metaphysics” of Poinc
aré, whose own work is among the
most important in the pre

Lorenz development of chaos theory.
Late Nineteenth Century Developments in Mathematics
5
The 1
870s would be a time when develo
pments in mathematics linked with
thinking about physics would open do
ors on new ideas and approaches that would lead to
the Lorenzian SDIC and also fractal geometry, as well as the possibility of endogenously
erratic dynamics, even if these ideas were viewed by most as somewhat peculiar or even
producing “monsters.”
One wo
uld be the first efforts to understand the basic idea of
SDIC, how a small change in a dynamical system could lead to much larger changes in
outcomes it could generate.
This would come with efforts by the figure who first
developed the theoretical unifica
tion of electricity and magnetism, James Clerk Maxwell
(1876). While he d
id not fully solve the problem, Louça (1997, p. 216) credits Maxwell
with understanding the problem in examining “that class of phenomena that such that a
spark kindles a forest, a ro
ck creates an avalanche or a word prevents an action.”
As reported by Mandelbrot (1983, p. 4), the decade would also see in 1872 the
discovery by Weierstrass of
a continuous but non

differentiable function that bears his
name. Such functions that are dis
continuous in their first derivatives everywhere would
be used by
Lord
Rayleigh (1880
v
) to study the frequency spectrum of blackbody
radiation
, with the lack of finite derivatives in certain bands suggesting the existence of
infinite energy, which would co
me to be called the “ultraviolet catastrophe,” from which
catastrophe theory would eventually obtain its moniker. The resolution of this
complication would involve the invention of
quantum mechanics by Max Planck, as
argued by Stewart (1989) and Ruelle (1
991).
In any case, Mandelbrot saw the
Weierstrass function as being a foundation for fractal geometry, many fractal sets
exhibiting exactly this character of continuity but non

differentiability.
6
The decade would close out with the suggestion by Sir Arth
ur Cayley (1879) to
study iterations using Newton’s method of the simple cubic equation of the form
x
3
–
1 = 0. (1)
This equation possesses three roots, and Cayley inquired re
garding which of the three the
iterative process would converge to from an arbitrary point. This proved to present
considerable difficulties, with these iterations forming something like the fractal Julia set
(1918) as
argued by Peitgen, Jürgens, &
Saupe
(1992, pp. 774

775)
, which can also be
seen as a form of erratic dynamics
. This also resembles somewhat the problem of the
dynamics of a pendulum over three magnets, which generates fractal basin boundaries
around the three different attractor sets.
It w
ould be in the following decade that Georg Cantor (1883) would discover the
clearest example of a fractal set, the Cantor set (also known as Cantor dust or Cantor
discontinuum). Some dismissed this (and his discovery of transfinite sets) as
“pathological,
” a diagnosis enhanced by his stays in mental institutions, but his work is
now regarded as fundamental for many branches of mathematics. The basic Cantor set is
constructed out of the closed [0, 1] interval by iteratively removing the open middle
thirds
from the interval and the subsequent remaining sub

intervals after each iteration.
What is left after an infinite set of iterations is infinitely subdividable, completely
discontinuous, and nowhere dense, of measure zero length, while containing a continu
um
of points
, and possessi
ng a fractal dimension of ln2/
ln
3
.
This monster would inspire a huge outpouring of imitators and followers over the
next century as documented by Mandelbrot
(1983) and Peitgen, Jürgens, &
Saupe (1992),
including the Lorenz attra
ctor, with the first two in this line being the space

filling curves
7
of Peano (1890) and Hilbert (1891).
Felix Hausdorff (1918) would formalize the
definition o
f fractal dimension, and
Richardson (1922)
, inspired by the Weierstrass
function,
would link th
is to the idea of a turbulent fluid dynamic consisting
of a hierarchy
of self

similar
eddies,
linked by a cascade without any overall measurable velocity,
characterized by the following (Richardson, 1922, p. 6):
“Big whorls have little whorls,
Which fe
ed on their velocity
;
And little whorls have lesser whorls,
And so on to viscosity
(in the molecular sense).”
All of these strands would come together in the culminating work in dynamic
mathematics of the nineteenth century of Henri Poincaré.
Inspired substantially by
the
celestial mechanics question
of the three body problem (Poincaré, 1890), he would
develop the qualitative theory of differential equations
, the concept of bifurcation th
at
allows for the
qualitative analysis of structural chan
ge
of such systems
,
vi
as well as show
the possibility of strange attractors and SDIC (Poincaré, 1908), although Hadamard
(1898) would beat him to the punch in showing
SDIC
explicitly in a model of
flows on
negatively curved geodesic surfaces.
More than any
other figure, Poincaré prefigured
Lorenz with his dynamical systems that could exhibit the butterfly effect and erratically
complex dynamics that would follow an “infinitely tight grid” like the fractal attractor
that Lorenz’s system follows, even thoug
h Poincaré viewed these kinds of results he
studied with a degree of disdain, if not outright horror.
vii
8
The Theory of Oscillators and the Discovery of Chaos
Poincaré’s work inspired a stream of theoretical development in the theor
y of
oscillators (Androno
v, 1929
) that would then be applied to problems of radio

engineering
((Mandel’shtam, Papales
ki, Andronov, Vitt, Gorelik, &
Khaikin, 1936), with this work
influencing later work on turbulent dynamics (Kolmogorov, 1958).
While the Russians
were carrying out
this theoretical work, others were developing
more specific
models of
oscillators that
would later be shown to be capable of generating chaotic dynamics. Not
only were these models capable of doing so, but as we shall see, the first experimental
discover
y of a physically chaotic system arose out of these studies.
The first of these was a model of an electro

magnetized vibrating beam due to
Duffing (1918).
Early work that suggested the complex nature of dynamics that the
Duffing oscillator model was capa
ble of w
as carried out by Cartwright &
Littlewood
(1945)
, which inspired
later study of its strange attractor by Ueda (1980)
. This would be
one of the first specific models that would be shown capable of generating period

doubling cascades of bifurcations
in a transition to chaos as a crucial control parameter is
varied (Holmes, 1979).
More influential was the model of an electrical circuit with a triode valve whose
resistance changes with the current due to van der Pol (1927). The unforced version of
th
is is given by
d
2
x/dt
2
+ a(x
2

b)x + x = 0, (2)
with a > 0 and b a control variable. For b < 0 the origin is the attractor, but a b = 0 there
is a bifurcation with a limit cycle occurring for b >
0, a Hopf bifurcation. The forced
version of this model is capable of generating
fully chaotic dynamics (Levi
, 1981).
9
Which brings us to the experimental discovery of chaotic dynamics in 1927, the
year van der Pol first wrote do
wn his model, by van der P
ol &
van der Mark (1927).
Ironically, while they understood approximately what they had found, they did not fully
understand the mathematics of it as this would not be fully established until 198
1. In any
case, van der Pol &
van der Mark were adjusting f
requency ratios in telephone receivers
and noticed zones where “an irregular noise is heard in the telephone receivers before the
frequency jumps to the next lower value…[that]strongly reminds one of the tune
s of a
bagpipe” (van der Pol &
van der Mark, 192
7, p. 364).
The Role of Economics in the Development of Chaos Theory
Debate continues regarding whether or not true chaotic dynamics have been found
in economic data or systems (Rosser, 2002, Chap. 7). However, the study of economic
models has contribut
ed to the development of chaos theory, including the first case of the
discovery of chaotic dynamics in a compu
ter simulation model (Strotz, M
cAnulty, &
Naines, 1953),
viii
even though the discoverers did not understand what they had
discovered at the time.
ix
As with the theory of oscillators, models were developed that
were only later discovered to be capable of generating chaotic dynamics.
As also in other areas, there were invocations of possibly erratic dynamics in
discussions of economic systems, prior to
these being formulated in clear mathematical
models.
x
We shall note here two by famous early economists that appear to invoke some
element of endogeneity as well as exogenous drivers. The first is from
the first Professor
of Political Economy in Britain
,
Thomas Robert Malthus
,
in the first edition of his
famous
Essay on the Principle of Population
(1798, p. 33

34):
10
“Such a history would tend greatly to elucidate the manner in which the
constant check upon population acts, and would probably prove the ex
istence of
the retrograde and progressive movements that have been mentioned; though the
times of their vibration must necessarily be rendered irregular, from the operation
of many interrupting causes; such as, the introduction or failure of certain
manufa
ctures; a greater or lesser spirit of agricultural ente
r
prise; years of plenty,
or years of scarcity; wars and pestilence; poor laws; the invention of processes for
shortening labour without the proportional extension of the market for the
commodity; and p
articularly the difference between the nominal and the real price
of labour; a circumstance, which has perhaps more than any other, contributed to
conceal this oscillation from common view.”
This vision by Malthus would later trigger the development of spe
cific demoeconomic
models that were shown to be able to generate chaotic dynamics (Day, 1983).
While Malthus emphasized the possibility of problems in the economy, often
being viewed as a precursor of Keynes,
Alfred Marshall is generally regarded as a mai
n
codifier of orthodox, neoclassical economic theory in Britain. However, although no one
has made a specific model based on these remarks, when Marshall would speak of the
“real world,” he (and others as well), would sometimes invoke visions that did not
fit so
neatly with the generally orderly world that Marshall formulated in his economic theory,
a world more consistent with nonlinear dynamics and even chaos. Thus, from the final
edition of his famous
Principles of Economics
(1920, p
. 346) comes this:
“But in reality such oscillations are seldom as rhythmical as those of a
stone hanging freely from a string; the comparison would be more exact if the
11
string were supposed to hang in the troubled waters of mill

race, whose stream
was at one time allowed to
flow freely, and at another partially cut off. Nor are
these complexities sufficient to illustrate the disturbances to which the economist
and the merchant alike are forced to concern themselves. If the person holding
the string swings his hand with mov
ements partly rhythmical, and partly arbitrary,
the illustration will not outrun the difficulties of some very real and practical
problems of value.”
It is worth noting that Marshall expanded this passage, adding the later complications in
the later editio
ns of this famous work, which first appeared in 1890, indicating his
increasing awareness of such matters as his life experience accumulated.
While there are a number of areas in economics where models would eventually
show chaotic dynamics,
xi
the one th
at led to the actual observation of chaotic dynamics in
a computer simulation prior to Lorenz is that of macroeconomic dynamic modeling.
Inspired by the Great Depression, various models involving nonlinear relationships were
developed from the mid

1930s t
o the early 1950s that could endogenously generate
cyclical behavior
(Rosser, 2000, Chap. 7)
.
Some of these were multiplier

accelerator
models with nonlinear accelerator functions that drive investment (Hicks, 1950;
Goodwin, 1951), while others simply had
a more direct, nonlinear investment functio
n
(Kałecki, 1935; Kaldor, 1940). While none of these economists were aware at the time of
creating their models that they could generate such irregular dynamics, all of these
models would eventually be shown capable of doing so. In particular, it would b
e the
Goodwin model that only two years after its publication would be s
hown able to do so by
Strotz, M
cAnulty, & Naines (1953), even though neither they nor Goodwin understood
12
properly what they had shown, although Goodwin would later study chaotic econom
ic
dynamics quite deeply (Goodwin, 1990).
The original Goodwin model (1951) is given by three equations:
c(t) =
α
y(t)
–
ε
dy(t)/dt +
β
(t), (3)
dk(t)/dt =
ρ
[dy(t)/dt
–
θ
)], (4)
y(t) = c(t) + dk(t)/dt + l(t),
(5)
with c(t) being consumption, y(t) income, k(t) the capital stock (meaning that dk(t)/dt is
induced investment), θ is a lag in the investment function, l(t) is autonomous investment,
and β(t) is autonomous consumption.
This system can be compressed to
εdy(t)/dt + (1

α)y(t) = ρ[dy(t

θ)/dy] + β(t) + l(t). (6)
Goodwin showed that this could endogenously generate periodic cycles for certain not
unreasonable values of the parameters.
Iron
ically, given the work of van der Pol and van der Mark (1927), those who
found the possibility of chaotic dynamics in this model did so by turning it into a model
of electrical oscillation, an “electro

analog” model that they simulated on an analog
compute
r (Strotz, M
cAnulty, & Naines, 1953). Their equivalent model from electrical
circuitry is
RCdq(t)/dt + (1
–
α
)q(t)
–
ρ
[da(t

θ
)] = q
0
(t), (7)
with q(t) representing electrical charge in coulombs, ρ[dq(t

θ)] a time

lagged function, R
showing resistance in ohms, C as
capacitance, with RC a constant.
.
In simulating
this model on an analog computer and testing it for various
parameter values, they found it able to generate both a wide variety of cycles, an ability
to jump from one cycle type to another, and to not follow any cycle at all, but to fluctuate
13
erratically.
More significantly they realized the role of “initial conditions” in determining
this wide variability of outcomes, recognizing that it could represent both differences in
actual starting points as well as the role of exogenous shocks. The final several
paragraphs of their paper describe how these variabilities arise with many different
patterns possible with even small changes in the initial conditions, which they argued
“actually enrich the explanatory value of the theory” [of Goodwin] (p. 408). Whi
le they
did not fully understand the significance of what they had found, they did understand that
it was pretty interesting.
Conclusions
One might be tempted to infer that this recitation of all the predecessors to
Edward Lorenz in previously discoverin
g the various details of what he observed that day
in 1961 when he took his coffee break demonstrates that he really did not do anything of
any particularly great importance. It was all already known, and Poincaré had even
discovered all the parts, not ju
st scattered ones as had other people, many of whom did
not quite understand what they were observing.. However, this would be a
misunderstanding. Lorenz can be claimed to have “discovered chaos” both because he
put all the elements together, sensitive d
ependence on initial conditions, with strange
(fractal) attractors, and the resulting erratic dynamics, and because he saw them all
together and in the context of a computer simulation situation that could be replicated.
It is true that Poincaré had all t
he individual pieces. It is also certainly true that
these pieces had all been observed or contemplated even earlier by others. It is also true
that several individuals actually saw chaotic dynamics, either in the real world or in a
14
computer simulation.
But Poincaré never put them all together in a single model to point
out their essential linkage. Indeed, he shied away from his own findings. And none of
these others did so likewise, although some, such as Cantor, might well have not shied
away in the
manner of Poincaré seeking to understand an orderly universe. It was
Lorenz, who, once he realized that what he saw after his coffee break was not some fluke
of the computer, focused on what it involved and went on to observe the beautiful strange
attract
or that underlay it and was so intimately associated with its sensitive dependence
on initial conditions.
Of course, it was not Lorenz who would derive the full mathematical
understanding of what was going on. But those who did
so
in the succeeding decad
es
became aware of Lorenz’s work and his model, and it served to inspire their efforts in a
way more forceful than all the earlier work that had been done, although of course these
later thinkers would go back to Poincaré and ferret out that he had effecti
vely done it all
even earlier, even if he had not quite put it all together and emphasized what it was in the
way that Lorenz would do with his model.
Therefore, Edward Lorenz fully deserves the attention and praise he received for
his efforts, which can
be seen as a pivot point in the development of chaos theory, the
moment when the scattered understandings and observations that had been floating
around in the work of others over a long period of time became concentrated in a single
model that revealed th
at there was a unified process and phenomenon at work. In that
regard, he did indeed “discover chaos” on that fateful day when he took his coffee break.
15
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i
There is considerable disagreement about the correct definition of mathematical ch
aos. A widely used one
is due to Devaney (1989): p. 50): that a map of a set into itself exhibit SDIC, that it is
topologically
transitive
(indecomposable or irreducible), and that its periodic points are dense. Mandelbrot (1983) has
argued that fractali
ty, or strangeness (non

integer dimension), of the attractor of a system be a crucial
component (which Lorenz’s model exhibits), but most observers do not include this, thus allowing for
“non

chaotic strange attractors.” See Rosser (2000, Chap. 2) for fur
ther discussion.
ii
This author was firs t made aware of the idea of SDIC and chaos theory by the late climatologis t, Reid
Brys on, of the Univers ity of Wis cons in

Madison in 1973, who described Lorenz’s model and findings to
me. I note that at that time the
term “chaos” had yet to be applied to this phenomenon, first appearing in
print in the work of May (1974) and Li & Yorke (1975), with Yorke usually being credited for coining it
for such dynamics.
iii
Much work on mathematically clarifying the nature of s t
range attractors was done by Smale (1963), and
Os eledec (1968) codified s ufficiency conditions for the exis tence of SDIC.
iv
Ironically, while “chaos” is originally a Greek word, Anaxagoras never used it in any of the extant
fragments of his writing. I
t is the original state of the universe in Greek mythology, and the word is used in
English translations of Genesis from the Bible for the original state of the cosmos as well, although the
original Semitic word was “Tohuwabohu” (Rössler, 1998, p 2).
v
Ray
leigh (1916) would als o develop the model that mos t clearly underlay the three equation model
studied by Lorenz (1963). Its ability to produce turbulent Bénard cells was what would attract Lorenz’s
interest in it for studying the fluid dynamics of climati
c and meteorological systems.
vi
See Rosser (2000, Chap. 2) for further discussion. Arnol’d (1992, Appendix) argues that the earliest
precursor of bifurcation theory was Christiaan Huygens in 1654 with his study of the stability of cusp
points in caustics
and on wave fronts.
vii
Thus, effectively Poincaré was the firs t to produce a model that could generate true mathematical chaos
from his s tudies of the three body problem. Stewart (1989, pp. 248

252) has s ugges ted that the
unpredictable “tumbling” of the ro
tation of Saturn’s moon Hyperion may well be an example of actual
chaotic dynamics in celestial mechanics.
viii
There may have been an earlier demons tration of chaotic dynamics in economics, although not through
computer s imulation, by Tord Palander (1935) in
a regional economics model with a three

period cycle,
although as with others he did realize the pos s ible implications of this. It is not certain this is a chaotic
model in that it is a more than one dimens ional model, and the Li

Yorke (1975) theorem ab
out three period
cycles only applies to one dimens ional models (it s hould be remembered that Li

Yorke is a s pecial cas e of
Sharkovs ky, 1964). An example of a two

dimens ional s ys tem with a non

chaotic three period cycle would
be a circle mapped into its elf
by rotating by a third each dis crete peiod.
ix
The firs t to pres ent a model s howing chaotic dynamics and s ugges ting that it could be applied to
economics was Robert May (1976), with his logis tic equation model. The firs t to cons cious ly pres ent an
economic
model s howing chaotic dynamics was David Rand (1978) of Cournot duopoly dynamics.
x
For a more complete dis cus s ion of s uch examples, s ee Ros s er (1999).
xi
One such area involves cobweb models. Some have argued that one of the early developers of such
mode
ls (Ezekiel, 1938) understood that they could generate patterns of irregular dynamics, although he did
not demonstrate this explicitly in his original paper, only making brief remarks suggesting it.
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