Continued fractions and the origins of the Perron–Frobenius theorem

Research paper by Thomas Hawkins

Indexed on: 29 Jul '08Published on: 29 Jul '08Published in: Archive for History of Exact Sciences


The theory of nonnegative matrices is an example of a theory motivated in its origins and development by purely mathematical concerns that later proved to have a remarkably broad spectrum of applications to such diverse fields as probability theory, numerical analysis, economics, dynamical programming, and demography. At the heart of the theory is what is usually known as the Perron–Frobenius Theorem. It was inspired by a theorem of Oskar Perron on positive matrices, usually called Perron’s Theorem. This paper is primarily concerned with the origins of Perron’s Theorem in his masterful work on ordinary and generalized continued fractions (1907) and its role in inspiring the remarkable work of Frobenius on nonnegative matrices (1912) that produced, inter alia, the Perron–Frobenius Theorem. The paper is not at all intended exclusively for readers with expertise in the theory of nonnegative matrices. Anyone with a basic grounding in linear algebra should be able to read this article and come away with a good understanding of the Perron–Frobenius Theorem as well as its historical origins. The final section of the paper considers the first major application of the Perron–Frobenius Theorem, namely, to the theory of Markov chains. When he introduced the eponymous chains in 1908, Markov adumbrated several key notions and results of the Perron–Frobenius theory albeit within the much simpler context of stochastic matrices; but it was by means of Frobenius’ 1912 paper that the linear algebraic foundations of Markov’s theory for nonpositive stochastic matrices were first established by R. Von Mises and V.I. Romanovsky.