A thick ring shell at the Indus Valley Civilization site of Lothal, with four slits each in two margins served as a compass to measure angles on plane surfaces or in the horizon in multiples of 40 degrees, up to 360 degrees. Such shell instruments were probably invented to measure 8–12 whole sections of the horizon and sky, explaining the slits on the lower and upper margins. Archaeologists consider this as evidence that the Lothal experts had achieved an 8–12 fold division of horizon and sky, as well as an instrument for measuring angles and perhaps the position of stars, and for navigation.
Sumerian astronomers studied angle measure, using a division of circles into 360 degrees. They, and later the Babylonians, studied the ratios of the sides of similar triangles and discovered some properties of these ratios but did not turn that into a systematic method for finding sides and angles of triangles. The ancient Nubians used a similar method.
In the 3rd century BC, Hellenistic mathematicians such as Euclid and Archimedes studied the properties of chords and inscribed angles in circles, and they proved theorems that are equivalent to modern trigonometric formulae, although they presented them geometrically rather than algebraically. In 140 BC, Hipparchus (from Nicaea, Asia Minor) gave the first tables of chords, analogous to modern tables of sine values, and used them to solve problems in trigonometry and spherical trigonometry. In the 2nd century AD, the Greco-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (from Alexandria, Egypt) constructed detailed trigonometric tables (Ptolemy's table of chords) in Book 1, chapter 11 of his Almagest. Ptolemy used chord length to define his trigonometric functions, a minor difference from the sine convention we use today. (The value we call sin(θ) can be found by looking up the chord length for twice the angle of interest (2θ) in Ptolemy's table, and then dividing that value by two.) Centuries passed before more detailed tables were produced, and Ptolemy's treatise remained in use for performing trigonometric calculations in astronomy throughout the next 1200 years in the medieval Byzantine, Islamic, and, later, Western European worlds.
The modern sine convention is first attested in the Surya Siddhanta, and its properties were further documented by the 5th century (AD) Indian mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata. These Greek and Indian works were translated and expanded by medieval Islamic mathematicians. By the 10th century, Islamic mathematicians were using all six trigonometric functions, had tabulated their values, and were applying them to problems in spherical geometry. At about the same time, Chinese mathematicians developed trigonometry independently, although it was not a major field of study for them. Knowledge of trigonometric functions and methods reached Western Europe via Latin translations of Ptolemy's Greek Almagest as well as the works of Persian and Arabic astronomers such as Al Battani and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. One of the earliest works on trigonometry by a northern European mathematician is De Triangulis by the 15th century German mathematician Regiomontanus, who was encouraged to write, and provided with a copy of the Almagest, by the Byzantine Greek scholar cardinal Basilios Bessarion with whom he lived for several years. At the same time, another translation of the Almagest from Greek into Latin was completed by the Cretan George of Trebizond. Trigonometry was still so little known in 16th-century northern Europe that Nicolaus Copernicus devoted two chapters of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to explain its basic concepts.
Driven by the demands of navigation and the growing need for accurate maps of large geographic areas, trigonometry grew into a major branch of mathematics. Bartholomaeus Pitiscus was the first to use the word, publishing his Trigonometria in 1595. Gemma Frisius described for the first time the method of triangulation still used today in surveying. It was Leonhard Euler who fully incorporated complex numbers into trigonometry. The works of the Scottish mathematicians James Gregory in the 17th century and Colin Maclaurin in the 18th century were influential in the development of trigonometric series. Also in the 18th century, Brook Taylor defined the general Taylor series.