of first importance

My PhD student Charly Andral came with the question of the birthdate of importance sampling. I was under the impression that it had been created at the same time as the plain Monte Carlo method, being essentially the same thing since

\int_{\mathfrak X} h(x)f(x)\,\text dx = \int_{\mathfrak X} h(x)\frac{f(x)}{g(x)}g(x)\,\text dx

hence due to von Neumann or Ulam, but he could not find a reference earlier than a 1949 proceeding publication by Hermann Kahn in a seminar on scientific computation run by IBM. Despite writing a series of Monte Carlo papers in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Kahn is not well-known in these circles (although mentioned in Fishman’s book), while being popular to some extent for his theorisation of nuclear war escalation and deterence. (I wonder if the concept is developed in some of his earlier 1948 papers. In a 1951 paper with Goertzel, a footnote signals than the approach was called quota sampling in their earlier papers. Charly has actually traced the earliest proposal as being Kahn’s, in a 14 June 1949 RAND preprint, beating Goertzel’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory preprint on quota sampling and importance functions by five days.)

(As a further marginalia, Kahn wrote with T.E. Harris an earlier preprint on Monte Carlo methods in April 1949, the same Harris as in Harris recurrence.)

6 Responses to “of first importance”

  1. Such a novel idea. I’m thrilled!!

  2. This is only tangentially related, but I was recently trying to identify the first use of the term “Markov Chain Monte Carlo” or the initialism `MCMC’ (I am not counting Hastings’ 1970 paper, though of course it gets very close!).

    It seems to come after the 1990 paper of Gelfand and Smith, though is certainly being used by the 1993 paper of Smith and Roberts. Might you have any ideas as to when it first showed up?

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