Historically, the first specific three-body problem to receive extended study was the one involving the Moon, the Earth, and the Sun. In an extended modern sense, a three-body problem is a class of problems in classical or quantum mechanics that models the motion of three particles.
The gravitational problem of three bodies in its traditional sense dates in substance from 1687, when Isaac Newton published his "Principia" (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica). In Proposition 66 of Book 1 of the "Principia", and its 22 Corollaries, Newton took the first steps in the definition and study of the problem of the movements of three massive bodies subject to their mutually perturbing gravitational attractions. In Propositions 25 to 35 of Book 3, Newton also took the first steps in applying his results of Proposition 66 to the lunar theory, the motion of the Moon under the gravitational influence of the Earth and the Sun.
The physical problem was addressed by Amerigo Vespucci and subsequently by Galileo Galilei; in 1499, Vespucci used knowledge of the position of the Moon to determine his position in Brazil. It became of technical importance in the 1720s, as an accurate solution would be applicable to navigation, specifically for the determination of longitude at sea, solved in practice by John Harrison's invention of the marine chronometer. However the accuracy of the lunar theory was low, due to the perturbing effect of the Sun and planets on the motion of the Moon around the Earth.
Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Alexis Clairaut, who developed a longstanding rivalry, both attempted to analyze the problem in some degree of generality and by the use of differential equations to be solved by successive approximations. They submitted their competing first analyses to the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1747.
It was in connection with these researches, in Paris, in the 1740s, that the name "three-body problem" (French: Problème des trois Corps) began to be commonly used. An account published in 1761 by Jean le Rond d'Alembert indicates that the name was first used in 1747.
In 1887, mathematicians Heinrich Bruns and Henri Poincaré showed that there is no general analytical solution for the three-body problem given by algebraic expressions and integrals. The motion of three bodies is generally non-repeating, except in special cases.
A prominent example of the classical three-body problem is the movement of a planet with a satellite around a star. The general case of the three-body problem does not have a known solution and is addressed by numerical analysis approximations.