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I am looking for some core texts (books, book chapters, papers) about the general history of contemporary combinatorics, starting, say, from the interwar period up to today.

Texts about the history of computer science & the theory of computation might be ok, but I guess I want to focus more on the general history of the 'pure' mathematics side.

Most of the main works I have found so far seem to talk about the earlier periods. I am familiar with some of Gian-Carlo Rota, Timothy Gowers and Terence Tao's expository pieces, and also the many biographies of Paul Erdos. I am also familiar with Norman Biggs and Edward Brian Davies's work.

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I'm assuming by the work of Biggs you mean Graph Theory 1736-1936 (with E.K. Lloyd and R.J. Wilson). Oxford University Press, 1976. Second edition 1986, Japanese edition 1986. I would like to read this myself someday since I have only heard good things about it. –  hypercube May 22 '10 at 18:36
    
It's a great book! Biggs, Lloyd & Wilson each write great papers on the history of mathematics. –  Burhan May 26 '10 at 16:02

5 Answers 5

While not a history of the combinatorics involved there is a very nice biographical essay by L. Babai, In and Out of Hungary: Paul Erdös, His Friends and His Times that appears in the book honoring Erdös' 80th birthday, Combinatorics, Paul Erdös is Eighty, Vol. 2, Janos Bolyai Mathematical Society, Budapest, 1996, pp. 7-96.

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A very informative and entertaining book is The Mathematical Coloring Book by Alexander Soifer (Springer 2009). The title is perhaps misleading, because the book goes quite deeply into graph coloring and Ramsey theory, and their history. There is also a lot of fascinating biographical material on Erdős, van der Waerden, and others.

Addendum. The brief description above does not adequately describe how unique and valuable Soifer's book is. It is a labor of love that he spent 18 years researching -- working, conversing, and corresponding with dozens of the main players. The book is spiced with anecdotes, quotes and rare photographs, and is almost impossible to put down.

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I wish there actually was a mathematical coloring book. You know, the kind you color in with crayons. –  Michael Lugo Jun 21 '10 at 12:32

Schrijver's "Combinatorial Optimization" 3-book set/CD has smidgeons of history (they are self-evident from section titles in the table of contents)... for example it is pretty bad-ass in terms of thoroughness for the history of matroids. It may be too old or too computational for your target but may be ok.

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In Richard Stanley's EC1 and EC2 he provides some notes at the end of each chapter with some interesting historical remarks and references.

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thanks for all these titles, everyone. hmm...it looks like someone has yet to write a sufficiently exhaustive single book focusing on the history of modern combinatorics. i'm pretty sure one about the hungarian school will prove popular, or even one focusing only on contemporary graph theory (since, say, ramsey's theorem or the probabilistic method). –  Burhan May 20 '10 at 23:27

At George Andrews' web site there is a link to an article "Partitions". He refers to this as chapter eight in History of Combinatorics, edited by Robin Wilson. Robin Wilson has a list of Book Projects in which he describes this book as follows:

"History of Combinatorics, Mathematical Association of America; an edited collection of articles on topics in the history of combinatorics: target handover date, end-2008."

But I can't find anybody who's saying that they've written some other chapter of this book. Nor can I find any reference to it at the MAA web site. Perhaps someone else reading this knows more about the status of this project.

Edited 31 May 2011: I came across this old answer of mine and decided to dig around a little more. John Watkins, recently retired from Colorado College, is apparently working on this project with Wilson. This June 2010 Mathematics Magazine article about Euler squares includes the following citation for another chapter:

L. D. Andersen, History of latin squares, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Aalborg University, Research Report Series R-2007-32, 2007. To appear in The History of Combinatorics, R. Wilson and J. Watkins, eds.

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