This question is similar to Why do zeta functions contain so much information? , but is distinct. If the answers to that question answer this one also, I don't understand why.

The question is this: with the benefit of hindsight, the zeta function had become the basis of a great body of theory, leading to generalizations of CFT, and the powerful Langlands conjectures. But what made the 19th century mathematicians stumble on something so big? After all $\sum \frac{1}{n^s}$ is just one of many possible functions one can define that have to do with prime numbers. How and why did was the a priori fancifully defined function recognized as being of fundamental importance?

whythe zeta function is so important has a good answer at this point, the 'how' question seems a reasonable and interesting one. I might have a few remarks to contribute, but I am looking forward to reading other answers first. – Minhyong Kim Mar 15 '11 at 10:49