This paper outlines a chapter in the theory of ordered sets that concerns decompositions of ordered sets using various natural operations introduced by Garrett Birkhoff in 1940 – chiefly, the operations of sum (disjoint union), Cartesian product, and exponentiation.
This area has seen two brief, four-year flowerings of research activity during the past sixty-four years. Ivan Rival, working with several collaborators around 1978, obtained beautiful results on exponentiation which attracted other researchers to this topic. Altogether, about a dozen people contributed a chain of significant new results between 1978–1982. The subject then lay dormant until a major contribution by Jonathan D. Farley appeared in 1996. This pre-figured the solution, four years later, of a central problem about exponentiation of finite ordered sets that Birkhoff had formulated in 1942.
The theory of operations on ordered sets is a beautiful chapter of mathematics. We concentrate on those portions that are most relevant for the solution of the Birkhoff problem, offering (hopefully) accessible proofs of many results, including some new results. We would like to see a new renaissance of activity in this area, which continues to offer many attractive open problems.