The major division of the mechanics discipline separates classical mechanics from quantum mechanics. Historically, classical mechanics came first, while quantum mechanics is a comparatively recent invention. Classical mechanics originated with Isaac Newton’s laws of motion in Principia Mathematica. Quantum Mechanics was discovered in 1925. Both are commonly held to constitute the most certain knowledge that exists about physical nature. Classical mechanics has especially often been viewed as a model for other so-called exact sciences. Essential in this respect is the relentless use of mathematics in theories, as well as the decisive role played by experiment in generating and testing them.

Quantum mechanics is of a wider scope, as it encompasses classical mechanics as a sub-discipline which applies under certain restricted circumstances. According to the correspondence principle, there is no contradiction or conflict between the two subjects, each simply pertains to specific situations. The correspondence principle states that the behavior of systems described by quantum theories reproduces classical physics in the limit of large quantum numbers. Quantum mechanics has superseded classical mechanics at the foundational level and is indispensable for the explanation and prediction of processes at molecular and (sub)atomic level.

However, for macroscopic processes classical mechanics is able to solve problems which are unmanageably difficult in quantum mechanics and hence remains useful and well used. Modern descriptions of such behavior begin with a careful definition of such quantities as displacement (distance moved), time, velocity, acceleration, mass, and force. Until about 400 years ago, however, motion was explained from a very different point of view. For example, following the ideas of Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle, scientists reasoned that a cannonball falls down because its natural position is in the Earth; the sun, the moon, and the stars travel in circles around the earth because it is the nature of heavenly objects to travel in perfect circles.

The Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo brought together the ideas of other great thinkers of his time and began to analyze motion in terms of distance traveled from some starting position and the time that it took. He showed that the speed of falling objects increases steadily during the time of their fall. This acceleration is the same for heavy objects as for light ones, provided air friction (air resistance) is discounted. The English mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton improved this analysis by defining force and mass and relating these to acceleration. For objects traveling at speeds close to the speed of light, Newton’s laws were superseded by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. For atomic and subatomic particles, Newton’s laws were superseded by quantum theory. For everyday phenomena, however, Newton’s three laws of motion remain the cornerstone of dynamics, which is the study of what causes motion.

In the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s theories were criticized and modified by a number of figures, beginning with John Philoponus in the 6th century. A central problem was that of projectile motion, which was discussed by Hipparchus and Philoponus. This led to the development of the theory of impetus by 14th century French Jean Buridan, which developed into the modern theories of inertia, velocity, acceleration and momentum. This work and others was developed in 14th century England by the Oxford Calculators such as Thomas Bradwardine, who studied and formulated various laws regarding falling bodies. On the question of a body subject to a constant (uniform) force, the 12th century Jewish-Arab Nathanel (Iraqi, of Baghdad) stated that constant force imparts constant acceleration, while the main properties are uniformly accelerated motion (as of falling bodies) was worked out by the 14th century Oxford Calculators.