Brief History of Probability
Number Sense
Interactive Quiz
Lesson Plans
Problem Bank
Helpful Links

     Concepts of probability have been around for thousands of years, but probability theory did not arise as a branch of mathematics until the mid-seventeenth century. During the fifteenth century several probability works emerged.  Calculations of probabilities became more noticeable during this time period even though mathematicians in Italy and France remained unfamiliar with these calculation methods (David, 1962).   In 1494, Fra Luca Paccioli wrote the first printed work on probability, Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni e proportionalita (David, 1962).  In 1550, Geronimo Cardano inspired by the Summa wrote a book about games of chance called Liber de Ludo Aleae which means A Book on Games of Chance (David, 1962). 

     In the mid-seventeenth century, a simple question directed to Blaise Pascal by a nobleman sparked the birth of probability theory, as we know it today.  Chevalier de Mr gambled frequently to increase his wealth.  He bet on a roll of a die that at least one 6 would appear during a total of four rolls.  From past experience, he knew that he was more successful than not with this game of chance.  Tired of his approach, he decided to change the game.  He bet that he would get a total of 12, or a double 6, on twenty-four rolls of two dice. Soon he realized that his old approach to the game resulted in more money.  He asked his friend Blaise Pascal why his new approach was not as profitable.  Pascal worked through the problem and found that the probability of winning using the new approach was only 49.1 percent compared to 51.8 percent using the old approach (see detailed calculations) (Smith, 1996).

     This problem proposed by Chevalier de Mr is said be the start of famous correspondence between Pascal and Pierre de Fermat.  They continued to exchange their thoughts on mathematical principles and problems through a series of letters.  Historians think that the first letters written were associated with the above problem and other problems dealing with probability theory.  Therefore, Pascal and Fermat are the mathematicians credited with the founding of probability theory (David, 1962).

     The topic of probability is seen in many facets of the modern world. The theory of probability is not just taught in mathematics courses, but can be seen in practical fields, such as insurance, industrial quality control, study of genetics, quantum mechanics, and the kinetic theory of gases (Simmons, 1992).

Activity #1:

Imagine that you were living in the seventeenth century as a nobleman.  One day your friend Chevalier de Mr was visiting and challenged you to a game of chance. 

You agreed to play the game with him.  He said, "I can get a sum of 8 and a sum of 6 rolling two dice before you can get two sums of 7s."  Would you continue to play the game?

Link to solution.

Additional Resources of Information:
Milestones in the History of Probability, Department of Mathematics and Computer Information Science, Mansfield University

Link to major contributors to the development of probability.