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Auerbach, Lotka, and Zipf: pioneers of power-law city-size distributions

Power-law city-size distributions are a statistical regularity researched in many countries and urban systems. In this history of science treatise we reconsider Felix Auerbach’s paper published in 1913.

We reviewed his analysis and found (i) that a constant absolute concentration, as introduced by him, is equivalent to a power-law distribution with exponent 1≈1, (ii) that Auerbach describes this equivalence, and (iii) that Auerbach also pioneered the empirical analysis of city-size distributions across countries, regions, and time periods.

We further investigate his legacy as reflected in citations and find that important follow-up work, e.g. by Lotka (Elements of physical biology. Williams & Wilkins Company, Baltimore, 1925) and Zipf (Human behavior and the principle of least effort: an introduction to human ecology, Martino Publishing, Manfield Centre, CT (2012), 1949), does give proper reference to his discovery—but others do not. For example, only approximately 20% of city-related works citing Zipf (1949) also cite Auerbach (Petermanns Geogr Mitteilungen 59(74):74–76, 1913).

To our best knowledge, Lotka (1925) was the first to describe the power-law rank-size rule as it is analyzed today. Saibante (Metron Rivista Internazionale di Statistica 7(2):53–99, 1928), building on Auerbach and Lotka, investigated the power-law rank-size rule across countries, regions, and time periods. Zipf’s achievement was to embed these findings in his monumental 1949 book.

We suggest that the use of “Auerbach–Lotka–Zipf law” (or “ALZ-law”) is more appropriate than “Zipf’s law for cities”, which also avoids confusion with Zipf’s law for word frequency. We end the treatise with biographical notes on Auerbach.

D. Rybski, A. Ciccone, Auerbach, Lotka, and Zipf: pioneers of power-law city-size distributions, Arch. Hist. Exact Sciences 77 (2023), 601-613.

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