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Brief history of statistics

The Oxford English etymological dictionary defines statistics as follows:

statistics - first applied to the political science concerned with the facts of a state or community XVIII; all derived immediately from German statistisch adj., statistik sb.; whence statistician XIX.

Statistics is concerned with exploring, summarising, and making inferences about the state of complex systems. As summarised in Table 1.1, the development of statistics in Europe was strongly motivated by the need to make sense of the large amount of data collected by population surveys in the emerging nation states. At the same time, the mathematical foundations for statistics advanced significantly due to breakthroughs in probability theory inspired by games of chance (gambling). For more information about the history of statistics refer to the books by Johnson and Kotz (1998) and Kotz and Johnson (1993).

Table 1.1: Summary of some key events in the development of statistics in Europe. For more historical details, refer to Johnson and Kotz (1998).
Year Event Person
1532 First weekly data on deaths in London Sir W. Petty

Start of data collection on baptisms, marriages, and deaths in France



Beginning of parish registry in Sweden  
1662 First published demographic study based on bills of mortality J. Graunt


Publ. of An estimate of the degrees of mortality of mankind drawn from curious tables of the births and funerals at the city of Breslaw with an attempt to ascertain the price of annuities upon lives

E. Halley


Publ. of Ars Conjectandi J. Bernoulli
1714 Publ. of Libellus de Ratiocinus in Ludo Aleae C. Huygens
1714 Publ. of The Doctrine of Chances A. De Moivre
1735 Start of demographic data collection in Norway  

Publ. of An essay towards solving a problem in the Doctrine of Chances

Rev. Bayes


Publ. of Theoria Motus Corporum Coelestium C.F. Gauss
1812 Publ. of Théorie analytique des probabilités P.S. Laplace
1834 Establishment of the Statistical Society of London  
1839 Establishment of the American Statistical Association (Boston)  
1889 Publ. of Natural Inheritance F. Galton


Development of the $\chi ^2$ test K. Pearson
1901 Publ. of the first issue of Biometrika F. Galton et al.
1903 Development of Principal Component Analysis K. Pearson
1908 Publ. of The probable error of a mean ``Student''
1910 Publ. of An introduction to the theory of statistics G.U. Yule
1933 Publ. of On the empirical determination of a distribution A.N. Kolmogorov
1935 Publ. of The Design of Experiments R.A. Fisher
1936 Publ. of Relations between two sets of variables H. Hotelling
1972 Publ. of Regression models and life tables D.R. Cox
1972 Publ. of Generalized linear models

J.A. Nelder and R.W.M. Wedderburn

1979 Publ. of Bootstrap methods: another look at the jackknife B. Efron

next up previous contents
Next: What is statistics ? Up: Introduction Previous: Purpose of this course
David Stephenson