The scientific study of probability is a modern development. Gambling shows that there has been an interest in quantifying the ideas of probability for millennia, but exact mathematical descriptions arose much later. There are reasons of course, for the slow development of the mathematics of probability. Whereas games of chance provided the impetus for the mathematical study of probability, fundamental issues are still obscured by the superstitions of gamblers.
According to Richard Jeffrey, "Before the middle of the seventeenth century, the term 'probable' (Latin probabilis) meant approvable, and was applied in that sense, univocally, to opinion and to action. A probable action or opinion was one such as sensible people would undertake or hold, in the circumstances." However, in legal contexts especially, 'probable' could also apply to propositions for which there was good evidence.
Aside from elementary work by Girolamo Cardano in the 16th century, the doctrine of probabilities dates to the correspondence of Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal (1654). Christiaan Huygens (1657) gave the earliest known scientific treatment of the subject. Jakob Bernoulli's Ars Conjectandi (posthumous, 1713) and Abraham de Moivre's Doctrine of Chances (1718) treated the subject as a branch of mathematics. See Ian Hacking's The Emergence of Probability and James Franklin's The Science of Conjecture for histories of the early development of the very concept of mathematical probability.
The theory of errors may be traced back to Roger Cotes's Opera Miscellanea (posthumous, 1722), but a memoir prepared by Thomas Simpson in 1755 (printed 1756) first applied the theory to the discussion of errors of observation. The reprint (1757) of this memoir lays down the axioms that positive and negative errors are equally probable, and that certain assignable limits define the range of all errors. Simpson also discusses continuous errors and describes a probability curve.
The first two laws of error that were proposed both originated with Pierre-Simon Laplace. The first law was published in 1774 and stated that the frequency of an error could be expressed as an exponential function of the numerical magnitude of the error, disregarding sign. The second law of error was proposed in 1778 by Laplace and stated that the frequency of the error is an exponential function of the square of the error. The second law of error is called the normal distribution or the Gauss law. "It is difficult historically to attribute that law to Gauss, who in spite of his well-known precocity had probably not made this discovery before he was two years old."
Daniel Bernoulli (1778) introduced the principle of the maximum product of the probabilities of a system of concurrent errors.
Adrien-Marie Legendre (1805) developed the method of least squares, and introduced it in his Nouvelles méthodes pour la détermination des orbites des comètes (New Methods for Determining the Orbits of Comets). In ignorance of Legendre's contribution, an Irish-American writer, Robert Adrain, editor of "The Analyst" (1808), first deduced the law of facility of error,
where is a constant depending on precision of observation, and is a scale factor ensuring that the area under the curve equals 1. He gave two proofs, the second being essentially the same as John Herschel's (1850). Gauss gave the first proof that seems to have been known in Europe (the third after Adrain's) in 1809. Further proofs were given by Laplace (1810, 1812), Gauss (1823), James Ivory (1825, 1826), Hagen (1837), Friedrich Bessel (1838), W. F. Donkin (1844, 1856), and Morgan Crofton (1870). Other contributors were Ellis (1844), De Morgan (1864), Glaisher (1872), and Giovanni Schiaparelli (1875). Peters's (1856) formula for r, the probable error of a single observation, is well known.
In the nineteenth century authors on the general theory included Laplace, Sylvestre Lacroix (1816), Littrow (1833), Adolphe Quetelet (1853), Richard Dedekind (1860), Helmert (1872), Hermann Laurent (1873), Liagre, Didion, and Karl Pearson. Augustus De Morgan and George Boole improved the exposition of the theory.
Andrey Markov introduced the notion of Markov chains (1906), which played an important role in stochastic processes theory and its applications. The modern theory of probability based on the measure theory was developed by Andrey Kolmogorov (1931).
On the geometric side (see integral geometry) contributors to The Educational Times were influential (Miller, Crofton, McColl, Wolstenholme, Watson, and Artemas Martin).Further information: History of statistics
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