The device known as the method of least squares, for reducing numerous equations of condition to the number of unknown quantities to be determined, had been adopted as a practically convenient rule by Gauss and Legendre; but Laplace first treated it as a problem in probabilities, and proved by an intricate and difficult course of reasoning that it was also the most advantageous, the mean of the probabilities of error in the determination of the elements being thereby reduced to a minimum.
He follows Vieta in assigning the vowels to the unknown quantities and the consonants to the knowns, but instead of using capitals, as with Vieta, he employed the small letters; equality he denoted by Recorde's symbol, and he introduced the signs > and < for greater than and less than.
None of them, in point of fact, has held its ground, and even his proposal to denote unknown quantities by the vowels A, E, I, 0, u, Y - the consonants B, c, &c., being reserved for general known quantities - has not been taken up. In this denotation he followed, perhaps, some older contemporaries, as Ramus, who designated the points in geometrical figures by vowels, making use of consonants, R, S, T, &c., only when these were exhausted.
On the other hand, Vieta was well skilled in most modern artifices, aiming at a simplification of equations by the substitution of new quantities having a certain connexion with the primitive unknown quantities.
Thus, to investigate the composition of the system we must be able to calculate the value of r (n-1) unknown quantities.