Quantitative finance started in the U.S. in the 1970s as some astute investors began using mathematical formulae to price stocks and bonds.
Harry Markowitz‘s 1952 Ph.D thesis “Portfolio Selection” was one of the first papers to formally adapt mathematical concepts to finance. Markowitz formalized a notion of mean return and covariances for common stocks which allowed him to quantify the concept of “diversification” in a market. He showed how to compute the mean return and variance for a given portfolio and argued that investors should hold only those portfolios whose variance is minimal among all portfolios with a given mean return. Although the language of finance now involves Itō calculus, management of risk in a quantifiable manner underlies much of the modern theory.
In 1969 Robert Merton introduced stochastic calculus into the study of finance. Merton was motivated by the desire to understand how prices are set in financial markets, which is the classical economics question of “equilibrium,” and in later papers he used the machinery of stochastic calculus to begin investigation of this issue.
At the same time as Merton’s work and with Merton’s assistance, Fischer Black and Myron Scholes developed the Black–Scholes model, which was awarded the 1997 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. It provided a solution for a practical problem, that of finding a fair price for a European call option, i.e., the right to buy one share of a given stock at a specified price and time. Such options are frequently purchased by investors as a risk-hedging device. In 1981, Harrison and Pliska used the general theory of continuous-time stochastic processes to put the Black–Scholes model on a solid theoretical basis, and as a result, showed how to price numerous other “derivative” securities.