Switching circuit theory is the mathematical study of the properties of networks of idealized switches. Such networks may be strictly combinational logic, in which their output state is only a function of the present state of their inputs; or may also contain sequential elements, where the present state depends on the present state and past states; in that sense, sequential circuits are said to include "memory" of past states. An important class of sequential circuits are state machines. Switching circuit theory is applicable to the design of telephone systems, computers, and similar systems. Switching circuit theory provided the mathematical foundations and tools for digital system design in almost all areas of modern technology.
In an 1886 letter, Charles Sanders Peirce described how logical operations could be carried out by electrical switching circuits. During 1880–1881 he showed that NOR gates alone (or alternatively NAND gates alone) can be used to reproduce the functions of all the other logic gates, but this work remained unpublished until 1933. The first published proof was by Henry M. Sheffer in 1913, so the NAND logical operation is sometimes called Sheffer stroke; the logical NOR is sometimes called Peirce's arrow. Consequently, these gates are sometimes called universal logic gates.
Eventually, vacuum tubes replaced relays for logic operations. Lee De Forest's modification, in 1907, of the Fleming valve can be used as a logic gate. Ludwig Wittgenstein introduced a version of the 16-row truth table as proposition 5.101 of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Walther Bothe, inventor of the coincidence circuit, got part of the 1954 Nobel Prize in physics, for the first modern electronic AND gate in 1924. Konrad Zuse designed and built electromechanical logic gates for his computer Z1 (from 1935 to 1938).
From 1934 to 1936, NEC engineer Akira Nakashima, Claude Shannon and Victor Shestakov published a series of papers showing that the two-valued Boolean algebra, which they discovered independently, can describe the operation of switching circuits.
Ideal switches are considered as having only two exclusive states, for example, open or closed. In some analysis, the state of a switch can be considered to have no influence on the output of the system and is designated as a "don't care" state. In complex networks it is necessary to also account for the finite switching time of physical switches; where two or more different paths in a network may affect the output, these delays may result in a "logic hazard" or "race condition" where the output state changes due to the different propagation times through the network.