Poisson (stochastic) process

One of the most important stochastic processes is Poisson stochastic process, often called simply the Poisson process. In a previous post I gave the definition of a stochastic process (also called a random process) alongside some examples of this important random object, including counting processes.  The Poisson (stochastic) process is a counting process. This continuous-time  stochastic process is a highly studied and used object. It plays a key role in different probability fields, particularly those focused on stochastic processes such as stochastic calculus (with jumps) and the theories of Markov processes, queueingpoint processes (on the real line), and Levy processes.

The points in time when a Poisson stochastic process increases form a Poisson point process on the real line. In this setting the stochastic process and the point process can be considered two interpretations of the same random object.  The Poisson point process is often just called the Poisson process, but a Poisson point process can be defined on more generals spaces. In some literature, such as the theory of Lévy processes, a Poisson point process is called a Poisson random measure, differentiating the Poisson point process from the Poisson stochastic process. Due to the connection with the Poisson distribution, the two mathematical objects are named after Simeon Poisson, but he never studied these random objects.

The other important stochastic process is the Wiener process or Brownian (motion process), which I cover in another post. The Wiener process is arguably the most important stochastic process. I have written that post and the current one with the same structure and style, reflecting and emphasizing the similarities between these two fundamental stochastic process.

In this post I will give a definition of the homogenous Poisson process. I will also describe some of its key properties and importance. In future posts I will cover the history and generalizations of this stochastic process.


In the stochastic processes literature there are different definitions of the Poisson process. These depend on the settings such as the level of mathematical rigour. I give a mathematical definition which captures the main characteristics of this stochastic process.

Definition: Homogeneous Poisson (stochastic) process

An integer-valued stochastic process \(\{N_t:t\geq 0 \}\) defined on a probability space \((\Omega,\mathcal{A},\mathbb{P})\) is a homogeneous Poisson (stochastic) process if it has the following properties:

  1. The initial value of the stochastic process \(\{N_t:t\geq 0 \}\) is zero with probability one, meaning \(P(N_0=0)=1\).
  2. The increment \(N_t-N_s\) is independent of the past, that is, \(N_u\), where \(0\leq u\leq s\).
  3. The increment \(N_t-N_s\) is a Poisson variable with mean \(\lambda (t-s)\).

In some literature, the initial value of the stochastic process may not be given. Alternatively, it is simply stated as \(N_0=0\) instead of the more precise (probabilistic) statement given above.

Also, some definitions of this stochastic process include an extra property or two. For example, from the above definition, we can infer that increments of the homogeneous Poisson process are stationary due to the properties of the Poisson distribution. But a definition may include something like the following property, which explicitly states that this stochastic process is stationary.

  1. For \(0\leq u\leq s\), the increment \(N_t-N_s\) is equal in distribution to \(N_{t-s}\).

The definitions may also describe the continuity of the realizations of the stochastic process, known as sample paths, which we will cover in the next section.

It’s interesting to compare these defining properties with the corresponding ones of the standard Wiener stochastic process. Both stochastic processes build upon divisible probability distributions. Using this property, Lévy processes generalize these two stochastic processes.


The definition of the Poisson (stochastic) process means that it has stationary and independent increments. These are arguably the most important properties as they lead to the great tractability of this stochastic process. The increments are Poisson random variables, implying they can have only positive (integer) values.

The Poisson (stochastic) process exhibits closure properties, meaning you apply certain operations, you get another Poisson (stochastic) process. For example, if we sum two independent Poisson processes \(X= \{X_t:t\geq 0 \}\) and \(Y= \{Y_t:t\geq 0 \}\), then the resulting stochastic process \(Z=Z+Y = \{N_t:t\geq 0 \}\) is also a Poisson (stochastic) process. Such properties are useful for proving mathematical results.

A single realization of a (homogeneous) Poisson stochastic process, where the blue marks show where the process jumps to the next value. In any finite time interval, there are a finite number of jumps.

Properties such as independence and stationarity of the increments are so-called distributional properties. But the sample paths of this stochastic process are also interesting. A sample path of a Poisson stochastic process is  almost surely non-decreasing, being constant except for jumps of size one. (The term almost surely comes from measure theory, but it means with probability one.) There are only finitely number of jumps in each finite time interval.

The homogeneous Poisson (stochastic) process has the Markov property, making it an example of a Markov process.  The homogenous Poisson process \(N=\{ N_t\}_{t\geq 0}\)s not a martingale. But interestingly, the stochastic process is \(\{ W_t – \lambda t\}_{t\geq 0}\) is a martingale. (Such relations have been used to study such stochastic processes with tools from martingale theory.)

Stochastic or point process?

The Poisson (stochastic) process is a discrete-valued stochastic process in continuous time. The relation these types of stochastic processes and point process is a subtle one. For example, David Cox and Valerie Isham write on page 3 of their monograph:

 The borderline between point processes and a  number of other kinds of stochastic process is not sharply defined. In particular, any stochastic process in continuous time in which the sample paths are step functions, and therefore any any process with a discrete state space, is associated with a point process, where a point is a time of transition or, more generally, a time of entry into a pre-assigned state or set of states. Whether it is useful to look at a particular process in this way depends on the purpose of the analysis.

For the Poisson case, this association is presented in the diagram below. We can see the Poisson point process (in red) associated with the Poisson (stochastic) process (in blue) by simply looking at the time points where jumps occur.

A single realization of a (homogeneous) Poisson stochastic process (in blue). The jumps of the process form a (homogeneous) Poisson point process (in red) on the real line representing time.


Playing a prominent role in the theory of probability, the Poisson (stochastic) process is a highly important and studied stochastic process. It has connections to other stochastic processes and is central in queueing theory and random measures.

The Poisson process is a building block for more complex continuous-time Markov processes with discrete state spaces, which are used as mathematical models.  It is also essential in the study of jump processes and subordinators.

The Poisson (stochastic) process is a member of some important families of stochastic processes, including Markov processes, Lévy processes, and birth-death processes. This stochastic process also has many applications. For example, it plays a central role in quantitative finance. It is also used in the physical sciences as well as some branches of social sciences, as a mathematical model for various random phenomena.

Generalizations and modifications

For the Poisson (stochastic) process, the index set and state space are respectively the non-negative numbers and counting numbers, that is \(T=[0,\infty)\) and \(S=0, 1, \dots\), so it has a continuous index set but a discrete state space. Consequently, changing the state space, index set, or both offers an ways for generalizing and modifying the Poisson (stochastic) process.


The defining properties of the Poisson stochastic process, namely independence and stationarity of increments, results in it being easy to simulate. The Poisson  stochastic process can be simulated provided random variables can be simulated or sampled according to a Poisson distributions, which I have covered in this and this post.

Simulating a Poisson stochastic process is similar to simulating a Poisson point process. (Basically, it is the same method in a one-dimensional setting.) But I will leave the details of sampling this stochastic process for another post.

Further reading

Here are some related links:

A very quick history of Wiener process and the Poisson (point and stochastic) process is covered in this talk by me.

In terms of books, the Poisson process has not received as much attention as the Wiener process, which is typically just called the Brownian (motion) process.  That said, any book covering queueing theory will cover the Poisson (stochastic) process.

More advanced readers can read about the Poisson (stochastic) process, the Wiener (or Brownian (motion)) process, and other Lévy processes:

On this topic, I recommend the introductory article:

  • 2004, Applebaum, Lévy Processes – From Probability to Finance and Quantum Groups.

This stochastic process is of course also covered in general books on stochastics process such as:


Binomial point process

The binomial point process is arguably the simplest point process. It consists of a non-random number of points scattered randomly and independently over some bounded region of space. In this post I will describe the binomial point process, how it leads to the Poisson point process, and its historical role as stars in the sky.

The binomial point process is an important stepping stone in the theory of point process. But I stress that for mathematical models, I would always use a Poisson point process instead of a binomial one. The only exception would be if you were developing a model for a small, non-random number of points.

Uniform binomial point process

We start with the simplest binomial point process, which has uniformly located points. (I described simulating this point process in an early post. The code is here.)


Consider some bounded (or more precisely, compact) region, say, \(W\), of the plane plane \(\mathbb{R}^2\), but the space can be more general.  The uniform binomial point process is created by scattering \(n\) points uniformly and independently across the set \(W\).

A single realization of a binomial point process with n=30 points. The points are uniformly and independently scattered across a unit square.


Consider a single point uniformly scattered in the region \(W\), giving a binomial point process with \(n=1\).  We look at some region \(B\), which is a subset of \(W\), implying \(B\subseteq W\).  What is the probability that the single point \(X\) falls in region \(B\)?

First we write \(\nu(W)\) and \(\nu(B)\)  to denote the respective areas (or more precisely, Lebesgue measures) of the regions \(W\) and \(B\), hence \(\nu(B)\leq \nu(W)\). Then this probability, say, \(p\), is simply the ratio of the two areas, giving

$$p= P(X\in B)=\frac{\nu(B)}{\nu(W)}.$$

The event of a single point being found in the set \(B\) is a single Bernoulli trial, like flipping a single coin. But if there are \(n\) points, then there are \(n\) Bernoulli trials, which bring us to the binomial distribution.

For a uniform binomial point process \(N_W\), the number of randomly located points being found in a region \(B\) is a binomial random variable, say, \(N_W(B)\), with probability parameter \(p=\nu(B)/ \nu(W)\). The probability mass function of \(N_W(B)\) is

$$ P(N_W(B)=k)={n\choose k} p^k(1-p)^{n-k}. $$

We can write the expression more explicitly

$$ P(N_W(B)=k)={n\choose k} \left[\frac{\nu(B)}{ \nu(W)}\right]^k\left[1-\frac{\nu(B)}{\nu(W)}\right]^{n-k}. $$

Poisson limit

Poisson random variable

A standard exercise in introductory probability is deriving the Poisson distribution by taking the limit of the binomial distribution. This is done by sending \(n\) (the total number of Bernoulli trials) to infinity while keeping the binomial mean \(\mu:=p n\) fixed, which sends the probability \(p=\mu/n\) to zero.

More precisely, for \(\mu\geq0\), setting \(p_n=\mu/n \) and keeping \(\mu :=p_n n\) fixed, we have the limit result

$$\lim_{n\to \infty} {n \choose k} p_n^k (1-p_n)^{n-k} = \frac{\mu^k}{k!}\, e^{-\mu}.$$

We can use, for example, Stirling’s approximation to prove this limit result.

We can make the same limit argument with the binomial point process.

Homogeneous Poisson point process

We consider the intensity of the uniform binomial point process, which is the average number of points in a unit area. For a binomial point process, this is simply

$$\lambda := \frac{n}{\nu(W)}.$$

For the Poisson limit, we expand the region \(W\) so it covers the whole plane \(\mathbb{R}^2\), while keeping the intensity \(\lambda = n/\nu(W)\) fixed. This means that the area \(\nu(W)\) approaches infinity while the probability \(p=\nu(B)/\nu(W)\) goes to zero. Then in the limit we arrive at the homogeneous Poisson point process \(N\) with intensity \(\lambda\).

The number of points of \(N\) falling in the set \(B\) is a random variable \(N(B)\) with the probability mass function

$$ P(N(B)=k)=\frac{[\lambda \nu(B)]^k}{k!}\,e^{-\lambda \nu(B)}. $$

General binomial point process

Typically in point process literature, one first encounters the uniform binomial point process. But we can generalize it so the points are distributed according to some general distribution.


We write \(\Lambda\) to denote a non-negative Radon measure on \(W\), meaning \(\Lambda(W)< \infty\) and \(\Lambda(B)\geq 0\) for all (measurable) sets \(B\subseteq W\).  We can also assume a more general space for the underlying space such as a compact metric space, which is (Borel) measurable. But the intuition still works for compact region of the plane \(\mathbb{R}^2\).

For the \(n\) points, we assume each point is distributed according to the probability measure

$$\bar{\Lambda}= \frac{\Lambda}{\Lambda(W)}.$$

The resulting point process is a general binomial point process. The proofs for this point process remain essentially the same, replacing the Lebesgue measure \(\nu\), such as area or volume, with the non-negative measure \(\Lambda\).


A typical example of the intensity measure \(\Lambda\) has the form

$$\Lambda(B)= \int_B f(x) dx\,,$$

where \(f\) is a non-negative density function on \(W\). Then the probability density of a single point is

$$ p(x) = \frac{1}{c}f(x),$$

where \(c\) is a normalization constant

$$c= \int_W f(x) dx\,.$$

On a set \(W \subseteq \mathbb{R}^2\) using Cartesian coordinates, a specific example of the density \(f\) is

$$ f(x_1,x_2) = \lambda e^{-(x_1^2+x_2^2)}.$$


Assuming a general binomial point process \(N_W\) on \(W\), we can use the previous arguments to obtain the binomial distribution

$$ P(N_W(B)=k)={n\choose k} \left[\frac{\Lambda(B)}{\Lambda(W)}\right]^k\left[1-\frac{\Lambda(B)}{\Lambda(W)}\right]^{n-k}. $$

General Poisson point process

We can easily adapt the Poisson limit arguments for the general binomial Poisson point process, which results in the general Poisson point process \(N\) with intensity measure \(\Lambda\). The number of points of \(N\) falling in the set \(B\) is a random variable \(N(B)\) with the probability mass function

$$ P(N(B)=k)=\frac{[\Lambda(B)]^k}{k!}\, e^{-\Lambda(B)}. $$

History: Stars in the sky

The uniform binomial point process is an example of a spatial point process. With points being scattered uniformly and independently, its sheer simplicity makes it a natural choice for an early spatial model. But which scattered objects?

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is trying to understand star locations where we find the earliest known example of somebody describing something like a random point process. In 1767 in England John Michell wrote:

what it is probable would have been the least apparent distance of any two or more stars, any where in the whole heavens, upon the supposition that they had been scattered by mere chance, as it might happen

As an example, Michelle studied the six brightest stars in the Pleiades star cluster. He concluded the stars were not scattered by mere chance. Of course “scattered by mere chance” is not very precise in today’s probability language, but we can make the reasonable assumption that Michell meant the points were uniformly and independently scattered.

Years later in 1860 Simon Newcomb  examined Michell’s problem, motivating him to derive the Poisson distribution as the limit of the binomial distribution. Newcomb also studied star locations. Stephen Stigler considers this as the first example of applying the Poisson distribution to real data, pre-dating the famous work by Ladislaus Bortkiewicz who studied rare events such as deaths from horse kicks. We also owe Bortkiewicz the terms Poisson distribution and stochastic (in the sense of random).


Here, on my repository, are some pieces of code that simulate a uniform binomial point process on a rectangle.

Further reading

For an introduction to spatial statistics, I suggest the lectures notes by Baddeley, which form Chapter 1 of these published lectures, edited by Baddeley, Bárány, Schneider, and Weil. The binomial point process is covered in Section 1.3.

The binomial point process is also covered briefly in the classic text Stochastic Geometry and its Applications by Chiu, Stoyan, Kendall and Mecke; see Section 2.2. Similar material is covered in the book’s previous edition by Stoyan, Kendall and Mecke.

Haenggi also wrote a readable introductory book called Stochastic Geometry for Wireless networks, where he gives the basics of point process theory. The binomial point process is covered in Section 2.4.4.

For some history on point processes and the Poisson distribution, I suggest starting with the respective papers:

  • Guttorp and Thorarinsdottir, What Happened to Discrete Chaos, the Quenouille Process, and the Sharp Markov Property?;
  • Stigler, Poisson on the Poisson distribution.

Histories of the Poisson distribution and the Poisson point process are found in the books:

Summary: Poisson simulations

Here’s a lazy summary post where I list all the posts on various Poisson simulations. I’ve also linked to code, which is found on this online repository. The code is typically written in MATLAB and Python.


Poisson point processes

Some simulations of Poisson point processes are also covered in this post on the Julia programming language:

Checking simulations

Poisson line process

Poisson random variables

Simulating Poisson random variables in Fortran

The hint’s in the title. I wrote a simple function in Fortran for simulating (or sampling) Poisson random variables. (More precisely, I should say that the function generates Poisson variates.) I used the simple direct method. This method is based on the exponential inter-arrival times of the Poisson (stochastic) process.

My code should not be used for large Poisson parameter values (larger than, say, 20 or 30), as the code may be too slow. Other methods exist for larger parameter values, which I’ve discussed previously.

I just use the standard Fortran function random_number for generating (pseudo-)random numbers. I am not an expert in Fortran, but my Poisson function seems to work fine. I wrote and ran a simple test that estimates the first and second moments, which should match for Poisson variables.

My Fortran code is very similar to the code that I wrote in C and C#, which is located here. You should be able to run it on this website or similar ones that can compile Fortran (95) code.

Further reading

For various Poisson simulation methods, see the stochastic simulation books by Devroye (Section X.3) or Fishman (Section 8.16). There’s a free online version of Devroye’s book here. The book by Gentle (Section 5.2.8) also briefly covers Poisson variables.

In this post on generating Poisson variates, John D. Cook briefly discusses the direct method (for small Poisson parameter values), as well as a rejection method from a 1979 paper by Atkinson.

I wrote the Poisson code using Fortran 95. There are various books and websites on Fortran. The website tutorialspoint.com gives a good introduction to Fortran. You can also edit, compile and run your Fortran code there with its online Fortran editor. I found this short summary a good start. For alternative Fortran code of a Poisson generator, consult the classic book Numerical Recipes, though I believe the book versions only exist for Fortran 77 and Fortran 90.


On this page I’ve only included the code of the functions for generating uniform and Poisson variates. The rest of the code, including the test, is located here.

!Poisson function -- returns a single Poisson random variable
function funPoissonSingle(lambda) result(randPoisson)
real, intent(in) :: lambda !input
real :: exp_lambda !constant for terminating loop
real :: randUni !uniform variable
real :: prodUni !product of uniform variables
integer :: randPoisson !Poisson variable

exp_lambda= exp(-lambda) 

!initialize variables
randPoisson = -1;
prodUni = 1;
do while (prodUni > exp_lambda)
   randUni = funUniformSingle() !generate uniform variable
   prodUni = prodUni * randUni; !update product
   randPoisson = randPoisson + 1 !increase Poisson variable
end do
end function

!Uniform function -- returns a standard uniform random variable
function funUniformSingle() result(randUni)
real randUni;
call random_seed
call random_number(randUni)

end function

Simulating Poisson random variables – Survey of methods

In the previous post, I discussed how to sample or generate Poisson random variables or, more correctly, variates. I detailed a direct method that uses the fact that a Poisson stochastic process, which is directly related to a Poisson point process, has inter-arrival times that form independent and identically distributed exponential variables.

This direct method in turn can be easily reformulated so it only uses (standard) uniform variables to generate Poisson random variables. It is an easy and intuitive sampling method, explaining why it is often used. Using it, I wrote Poisson simulation code in MATLAB, Python, C and C#, which can be found here. (For another post, I later implemented the same Poisson sampling method in Fortran, which is located here.)

As elegant and exact as this simulation method is, it unfortunately decreases in speed as the Poisson parameter \(\lambda\) increases. In a tutorial published in 1983, Brian D. Ripely, a major figure in spatial statistics, says this about the direct method:

This is simple, but has expected time proportional to \(\lambda\). Some of its competitors use rejection methods with the envelope distribution that of the integer part of a continuous random variable, such as logistic, Laplace and normal mixed with exponential distributions.

We recall that acceptance-rejection or rejections methods involve simulating a random object, such as a random variable, by first simulating another random object of the same type that is easier to simulate.  The simulation method then accepts or rejects these random objects based on a certain ratio. The distribution of the simpler random object that is first simulated is called the envelope distribution. Such rejection methods are one way to simulate Poisson variables.

In short, when simulating Poisson variables, the appropriate simulation algorithm should be chosen based on the Poisson parameter. Consequently, the code of most computer functions for generating Poisson variables will have an if-statement, using the direct method for small parameter values and another method for large parameter values. We now consider the other methods.

Different methods

Over the years there have been different methods proposed for producing Poisson random variates. In the book Non-uniform random variate generation, Luc Devroye groups the different methods into five categories coupled with his views. I’ll briefly describe these methods:

  1. Direct methods based on the homogeneous Poisson stochastic process having exponential inter-arrival times. These methods are simple, but the expected time is proportional to the Poisson parameter \(\lambda\).
  2. Inversion methods that search through a table of cumulative Poisson probabilities. Examples include the papers by Fishman (1976) and Atkinson (1979)*.
  3. Methods that use the recursive properties of the Poisson distribution. The paper by Ahrens and Dieter (1974) uses this approach, and its expected time of completion is proportional to \(\log\lambda\).
  4. Acceptance-rejection (or rejection) methods that give relatively fast but simple algorithms. Such methods are proposed in the papers by Atkinson (1979)*, Ahrens and Dieter (1980) and Devroye (1981) or the technical report by Schmeiser and Kachitvichyanukul (1981).
  5. Acceptance-complement methods that uses a normal distribution as the starting distribution, such as the paper by Ahrens and Dieter (1982). This method is fast, but the code is rather long.

*Atkinson had (at least) two papers on generating Poisson variates published in 1979, but I believe Devroye is referring to the first paper, because in the second paper Atkinson compares methods proposed by others.

For the paper titles, see the Further reading section below.

Methods implemented

In this section, I’ll state which proposed methods are used in various programming languages and numerical methods. I won’t go into the details how the methods work, as I’ll just cite the papers instead.


For small \(\lambda\) values, the MATLAB function poissrnd uses the  direct method (based on inter-arrival times) with a while-loop.

For \(\lambda\) values greater than fifteen, I believe that the MATLAB function poissrnd uses Algorithm PG from the 1974 paper by Ahrens and Dieter. But to come to this conclusion, I had to do some investigating. You can skip to the next section if you’re not interested, but now I’ll explain my reasoning.

The MATLAB documentation says it uses a method proposed by Ahrens and Dieter, but these two researchers developed a number of methods for generating Poisson variables. The MATLAB code cites Volume 2 of the classic series by Knuth, who says the method is due to Ahrens and Dieter, but he doesn’t give an exact citation in that section of the book. Confusingly, Knuth cites in his book a couple papers by Ahrens and Dieter for generating different random variates. (Knuth later cites a seemingly relevant 1980 paper by Ahrens and Dieter, but that details another method.)

Both the MATLAB code and Knuth cite the book by Devroye. In his book (Exercise 3.5.2), Devroye discusses one method, among others, from a 1974 paper by Ahrens and Dieter. Another hint is given by examining the code of the MATLAB function poissrnd, which reveals that it uses the function randg to generate gamma variables. In the Ahrens and Dieter 1974 paper, their Algorithm PG (for producing Poisson variates) uses gamma random variables, and it’s suggested to use a parameter value of \(7/8\). This is the same parameter used in the MATLAB code and mentioned by Knuth, confirming that this is the right paper by Ahrens and Dieter.

In summary, for large \(\lambda\) the function MATLAB uses Algorithm PG from the 1974 paper by Ahrens and Dieter, whereas for small values it uses the direct method, which they refer to as the multiplication method.


In R, the function rpois use an algorithm outlined in the 1982 paper by Ahrens and Dieter. You can view the R source code here. The two cases for \(\lambda\) (or \(\mu\) in the paper) depend on whether \(\lambda\) is greater than ten or not. For small \(\lambda\), the R function rpois does not use the method based on inter-arrival times, but rather an inversion method based on a table of (cumulative) probabilities given by the Poisson probability distribution.

Python (NumPy)

In NumPy, the function numpy.random.poisson generates Poisson variates. The source code for the NumPy library is here, but for the Poisson function the underlying code is actually written in C; see the distributions.c file located here. For small Poisson parameter \(\lambda\), the code uses the direct method; see the function random_poisson_mult in the code.

For Poisson parameter \(\lambda \geq 10\), the comments in the code reveal that it uses a method from a 1993 paper by Hörmann; see Algorithm PTRS on page 43 of the paper. This is a transformation method, which for NumPy is implemented in the C code as the function random_poisson_ptrs. The method, which Hörmann calls the transformed rejection with squeeze, combines inversion and rejection methods.


Octave is intended to be a GNU clone of MATLAB, so you would suspect it uses the same methods as MATLAB for generating Poisson random variates. But the Octave function poissrnd uses different methods. The code reveals it generates the Poisson variates with a function called prand. It considers different cases depending on the value of the Poisson parameter \(\lambda\) as well as whether a single variable (that is, a scalar) or vector or matrix of Poisson variates are being generated.

In total, the Octave function prand uses five different methods. For two of the methods, the documentation cites methods from the classic book Numerical Recipes in C (the 1992 edition); see next section. To generate a single Poisson variate with Poisson parameter \(\lambda \leq 12\), the Octave function prand uses the direct method based on inter-arrival times.

Numerical Recipes (Fortran, C and C++)

The book Numerical Recipes is a classic by Press, Teukolsky, Vetterling and Flannery on numerical methods. The books comes in different editions reflecting different publication years and computer languages. (In the first two editions of the book, the authors implemented the algorithms respectively in Fortran and C.)

For generating Poisson variates, the book contents seems to have not changed over the editions that I looked at, which covered the programming languages Fortran (77 and 90), C, and C++. The authors cover Poisson generation in Section 7.3 in the Fortran and C editions. In the third edition of Numerical Recipes, they implement their methods in C++ in Section 7.3.12.

For small values of Poisson parameter \(\lambda\), Numerical Recipes uses the direct method. For \(\lambda >12\) values, an acceptance-rejection method is used, which relies upon finding a continuous version of the discrete Poisson probability distribution.

GSL Library (C)

In the GSL library, one can use the function gsl_ran_poisson, which uses the the direct method of exponential times. The code, which can be viewed here, cites simply Knuth (presumably the second volume).

NAG Library (C)

Although I didn’t see the code, it appears that the function nag_rand_poisson (g05tjc ) in the NAG library also uses the direct method, based on the material in the second volume of series by Knuth. But in a 1979 paper Atkinson says that the NAG library uses a method from the 1974 paper by Ahrens and Dieter.

MKL library (C)

In the MKL C library written by Intel, there seems to be three methods in use for generating Poisson variates.

The first function is called VSL_RNG_METHOD_POISSON_PTPE, which does the following for a Poisson distribution with parameter \(\Lambda\):

If Λ ≥ 27, random numbers are generated by PTPE method. Otherwise, a combination of inverse transformation and table lookup methods is used. The PTPE method is a variation of the acceptance/rejection method that uses linear (on the fraction close to the distribution mode) and exponential (at the distribution tails) functions as majorizing functions. To avoid time-consuming acceptance/rejection checks, areas with zero probability of rejection are introduced and a squeezing technique is applied.

This function uses the so-called PTPE method, which is outlined in a 1981 technical report by Schmeiser and Kachitvichyanukul.

The second function is called VSL_RNG_METHOD_POISSON_POISNORM, which does the following :

If Λ < 1, the random numbers are generated by combination of inverse transformation and table lookup methods. Otherwise, they are produced through transformation of the normally distributed random numbers.

The third function is called VSL_RNG_METHOD_POISSONV_POISNORM, which does the following:

If Λ < 0.0625, the random numbers are generated by inverse transformation method. Otherwise, they are produced through transformation of normally distributed random numbers.

cuRAND (C)

Finally, Nvidia’s CUDA Random Number Generation library (cuRAND) has a function for generating Poisson variates. To see the C code, copies of it can be found in various GitHub repositories, such as this one. The cuRAND function curand_poisson uses the direct function for Poisson parameter values  less than 64. For parameters values greater than 4000, it uses a normal approximation (rounded to the nearest integer).

For other values, the function curand_poisson uses a rejection method based on an approximation of the incomplete gamma function; see the function curand_poisson_gammainc. The book by Fishman is cited; see Section 8.16.

Boost library Random (C++)

The Boost library Random uses the PTRD algorithm proposed in the 1993 paper by Hörmann to generate Poisson variates; see Algorithm PTRD on page 42 of the paper.  In the same paper appears the PTRS method, which is used by Python (NumPy) (though implemented in C), as mentioned above.

Further reading


For various Poisson simulation methods, see the stochastic simulation books:

The book by Gentle (Section 5.2.8) also briefly covers Poisson variables.

Of course, it’s a good idea to look at the citations that the different functions use.


Here is a list of the papers I mentioned in this post:

  • 1974, Ahrens and Dieter, Computer methods for sampling from gamma, beta, poisson and bionomial distributions;
  • 1976, Fishman, Sampling from the Poisson distribution on a computer;
  • 1979, Atkinson, The computer generation of Poisson random variables;
  • 1979, Atkinson, Recent developments in the computer generation of Poisson random variables;
  • 1980, Ahrens and Dieter, Sampling from binomial and Poisson distributions: a method with bounded computation times;
  • 1980, Devroye, The Computer Generation of Poisson Random Variables;
  • 1981, Schmeiser and Kachitvichyanukul, Poisson Random Variate Generation;
  • 1982, Ahrens and Dieter, Computer generation of Poisson deviates from modified normal distributions;
  • 1983, Ripley, Computer Generation of Random Variables: A Tutorial;
  • 1993, Hörmann, The transformed rejection method for generating Poisson random variable.

Simulating Poisson random variables – Direct method

If you were to write from scratch a program that simulates a homogeneous Poisson point process, the trickiest part would be the random number of points, which requires simulating a Poisson random variable. In previous posts, such as this one and this one, I’ve simply used the inbuilt functions for simulating (or generating) Poisson random variables (or variates).1In the literature, researchers describe methods for generating random deviates or variates. But, in my informal way, I will often say simulate random variables or generate random variates, somewhat interchangeably.

But how would one create such a Poisson function using just a standard uniform random variate generator? In this post I will write my own Poisson simulation code in MATLAB, Python, C and C#, which can be found here.

The method being used depends on the value of the Poisson parameter, denoted here by \(\lambda\), which is the mean (as well as the variance) of a random variable with a Poisson distribution. If this parameter value is small, then a direct simulation method can be used to generate Poisson random variates. In practice a small Poisson parameter is a number less than some number between 10 to 30.

For large \(\lambda\) values, other methods are generally used, such as rejection or (highly accurate) approximation methods. In the book Non-uniform random variate generation, the author Luc Devroye groups the methods into five categories (Section X.3.2), which I briefly describe in the next post. The first of those categories covers the method that I mentioned above. I will cover that method in this post, presenting some Poisson sampling code in C and C#. (I will also present some code in MATLAB, but you would never use it instead of the the inbuilt function poissrnd.)

In the next post, I’ll describe other types of Poisson simulation methods, and I’ll detail which simulation methods various programming libraries use.

Warning: My online webpage editor tends to mangle symbols like < and >, so it’s best not to copy my code straight from the website, unless you check and edit it.

Direct method

An elegant and natural method for simulating Poisson variates is to a result based on the homogeneous Poisson stochastic process. The points in time when a given homogeneous Poisson stochastic process increases forms a Poisson point process on the real line. 2Confusingly, the term Poisson process is often used to refer to both the stochastic process and the point process, but there is a slight difference.

Using exponential random variables

Here’s the algorithm for sampling Poisson variables with exponential random variables, which I’ll explain.

Sample Poisson random variable \(N\) with parameter (mean) \(\lambda\) using exponential random variables
    1. Set count variable \(N=0\) and initial sum variable \(S=0\);
    2. While \(S<1\):
      1. Sample uniform random variable \(U\sim U(0,1)\);
      2. Calculate \(E= -\log(U)/\lambda \) ;
      3. Update count and sum variables by setting \(N\rightarrow N+1\) and \(S\rightarrow S+E\);
    3. Return N;

The point in time when the Poisson stochastic process increases are called arrival times or occurrence times. In classic random models they represent the arrivals or occurrences of something, such as phone calls over time. The differences between consecutive times are called inter-arrival times or inter-occurrence times. The inter-arrival times of a homogeneous Poisson process form independent exponential random variables, a result known as the Interval Theorem.

Using this connection to the Poisson stochastic process, we can generate exponential variables \(E_1\), \(E_2, \dots \), and add them up. The smallest number of exponential variables for the resulting sum to exceeds one will give a Poisson random variable. That is, if we define \(N\) to be the smallest \(n\) such that
$$ \sum_{k=1}^{n+1} E_k > 1, $$
then \(N\) is a random variable distributed according to a Poisson distribution.

Generating exponential variates is easily done by using the inverse method. For a uniform random variable \(U\) on the unit interval \((0,1)\), the transformation \(E= -\log(U)/\lambda \) gives an exponential random variable with mean \(1/\lambda\).

But we can skip generating exponential random variates.

Using uniform random variables

Here’s the algorithm for sampling Poisson variables with uniform random variables.

Sample Poisson random variable \(N\) with parameter (mean) \(\lambda\) using uniform random variables
    1. Set count variable \(N=0\) and initial product variable \(P=1\);
    2. While \(P>e^{-\lambda}\):
      1. Sample uniform random variable \(U\sim U(0,1)\);
      2. Update count and product variables by setting \(N\rightarrow N+1\) and \(P\rightarrow P\times U\);
    3. Return N;

To reduce computations, the direct method using exponential random variables is often reformulated as products of uniform random variables. We can do this, due to logarithmic identities, and work with products of uniform variables instead of sums of exponential random variables.

Then, by using standard uniform random variables \(U_1, U_2,\dots\), we define \(N\) to be the smallest \(n\) such that
$$ \prod_{k=1}^{n+1} U_k < e^{-\lambda}. $$

These two different formulations of the same method are captured by Lemma 3.2 and Lemma 3.3 in Chapter 10 of Devroye’s book.

Example in MATLAB

In MATLAB, we can implement this method with the first formulation in a function with a simple while-loop:

function N=funPoissonLoop(lambda)
T=0; %initialize sum of exponential variables as zero
n=-1;%initialize counting variable as negative one

while (T <1)
E=-(1/lambda)*log(rand(1));%generate exponential random variable
T=T+E; %update sum of exponential variables
n=n+1; %update number of exponential variables

But, as I said before, don’t use this code instead of the inbuilt function poissrnd.

If you want to be a bit more tricky, you could achieve the same result by using recursion:

function N=funPoissonRecursive(lambda)
T=0; %initialize sum of exponential variables as zero
n=-1; %initialize counting variable as negative one

%run (recursive) exponential function step function

function [T,N]=funStepExp(nu,S,m)
if (S < 1)
%run if sum of exponential variables is not high enough

%generate exponential random variable
S=S+E; %update sum of exponential variables
m=m+1; %update nunber of exponential variables

%recursively call function again

Note how the code recursively calls the function funStepExp, which generates an exponential variable each time.

In the Code section below I describe my code in C and C#, using the second formulation.


Some people attribute the direct method, based on inter-arrival times, to (or, at least, cite) Donald Knuth, who details it in the second volume of his classic series of books, but I doubt that the great Knuth was the first to have this idea. For example, a quick search on Google Scholar found a paper  by K. D. Tocher on computers and random sampling, where Tocher proposes the direct method in 1954, some years before Knuth started publishing his classic series.

The direct method for Poisson sampling relies upon the Interval theorem. The Poisson point process expert Günter Last studied the origins of this fundamental result. He presented its history in a recent book authored by him and Matthew Penrose; see Chapter 7 and its corresponding historical footnotes in Section C of the appendix. (A free version of the book can be found here. ) People connected to the result include Robert Ellis and William Feller.

Other methods

The direct method perfectly generates Poisson random variables (or I should say Poisson random variates). But it can be too slow for large values of the Poisson parameter (that, is the mean) \(\lambda\). This has motivated researchers to develop other methods, which I will mention in the next post.


I wrote some code that simulates Poisson random variables by employing the direct method based on exponential inter-arrival times. As always, all my the code is online, with the code from this post being located here.

I have implemented the second formulation (using just uniform variables) in the C and C# languages. In the code, I have used a while-loop to implement the method. But I could have also used a recursion method, as I did in the MATLAB example above, which I have also done in Python (with NumPy).

For an empirical test, the code also calculates the mean and variance of a collection of Poisson variables. For a large enough number of variables, the sample mean and the variance will closely agree with each other, converging to the same value.


Warning: My C code uses rand(), the standard pseudo-random number function in C, which is known for failing certain tests of randomness. The function is adequate for regular simulation work. But it gives poor results for large number of simulations. Replace this function with another pseudo-random number generator.

The code for generating a single Poisson variate is fairly straightforward in C. Here’s a sample of the code with just the Poisson function:

//Poisson function -- returns a single Poisson random variable
int funPoissonSingle(double lambda)
double exp_lambda = exp(-lambda); //constant for terminating loop
double randUni; //uniform variable
double prodUni; //product of uniform variables
int randPoisson; //Poisson variable

//initialize variables
randPoisson = -1;
prodUni = 1;
randUni = funUniformSingle(); //generate uniform variable
prodUni = prodUni * randUni; //update product
randPoisson++; //increase Poisson variable

} while (prodUni > exp_lambda);
return randPoisson;

For generating multiple variates, the code becomes more complicated, as one needs to use pointers, due to the memory capabilities of C. Again, the function uses the pseudo-random number generator in C.


The code for generating a single Poisson variate is also straightforward in C#. Here’s the function in C#:

//Poisson function -- returns a single Poisson random variable
public int funPoissonSingle (double lambda) {
double exp_lambda = Math.Exp (-lambda); //constant for terminating loop
double randUni; //uniform variable
double prodUni; //product of uniform variables
int randPoisson; //Poisson variable

//initialize variables
randPoisson = -1;
prodUni = 1;
do {
randUni = funUniformSingle (); //generate uniform variable
prodUni = prodUni * randUni; //update product
randPoisson++; // increase Poisson variable

} while (prodUni > exp_lambda);

return randPoisson;

Generalizing the code so it generates multiple variates just requires a little change, compared to C, as the C# language is a much more modern language.


After this original post, I later wrote a post about implementing the same Poisson algorithm in Fortran. My Fortran code is very similar to the code that I wrote in C and C#. You should be able to run it on this website or similar ones that can compile Fortran (95) code.

Further reading

For various Poisson simulation methods, see the stochastic simulation books by Devroye (Section X.3) or Fishman (Section 8.16). There’s a free online version of Devroye’s book here. The book by Gentle (Section 5.2.8) also briefly covers Poisson variables.

In this post on generating Poisson variates, John D. Cook briefly discusses the direct method for small \(\lambda\) values and a rejection method from a 1979 paper by Atkinson, which I will mention in the next post. He presents his C# sharp code in this post.