A **computer algebra system** (**CAS**) is any mathematical software with the ability to manipulate mathematical expressions in a way similar to the traditional manual computations of mathematicians and scientists. The development of the computer algebra systems in the second half of the 20th century is part of the discipline of “computer algebra” or “symbolic computation”, which has spurred work in algorithms over mathematical objects such as polynomials.

Computer algebra systems may be divided into two classes: specialized and general-purpose. The specialized ones are devoted to a specific part of mathematics, such as number theory, group theory, or teaching of elementary mathematics.

General-purpose computer algebra systems aim to be useful to a user working in any scientific field that requires manipulation of mathematical expressions. To be useful, a general-purpose computer algebra system must include various features such as:

The library must not only provide for the needs of the users, but also the needs of the simplifier. For example, the computation of polynomial greatest common divisors is systematically used for the simplification of expressions involving fractions.

This large amount of required computer capabilities explains the small number of general-purpose computer algebra systems. The main ones are Axiom, Maxima, Magma, Maple, Mathematica and SageMath.

Computer algebra systems began to appear in the 1960s and evolved out of two quite different sources—the requirements of theoretical physicists and research into artificial intelligence.

A prime example for the first development was the pioneering work conducted by the later Nobel Prize laureate in physics Martinus Veltman, who designed a program for symbolic mathematics, especially high-energy physics, called Schoonschip (Dutch for “clean ship”) in 1963. Another early system was FORMAC.

Using LISP as the programming basis, Carl Engelman created MATHLAB in 1964 at MITRE within an artificial-intelligence research environment. Later MATHLAB was made available to users on PDP-6 and PDP-10 systems running TOPS-10 or TENEX in universities. Today it can still be used on SIMH emulations of the PDP-10. MATHLAB (“**math**ematical **lab**oratory”) should not be confused with MATLAB (“**mat**rix **lab**oratory”), which is a system for numerical computation built 15 years later at the University of New Mexico, accidentally named rather similarly.

The first popular computer algebra systems were muMATH, Reduce, Derive (based on muMATH), and Macsyma; a popular copyleft version of Macsyma called Maxima is actively being maintained. Reduce became free software in 2008. As of today,^{
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