Schrödinger intended his thought experiment as a discussion of the EPR article—named after its authors Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen—in 1935. The EPR article highlighted the counterintuitive nature of quantum superpositions, in which a quantum system such as an atom or photon can exist as a combination of multiple states corresponding to different possible outcomes.
The prevailing theory, called the Copenhagen interpretation, says that a quantum system remains in superposition until it interacts with, or is observed by the external world. When this happens, the superposition collapses into one or another of the possible definite states. The EPR experiment shows that a system with multiple particles separated by large distances can be in such a superposition. Schrödinger and Einstein exchanged letters about Einstein's EPR article, in the course of which Einstein pointed out that the state of an unstable keg of gunpowder will, after a while, contain a superposition of both exploded and unexploded states.
To further illustrate, Schrödinger described how one could, in principle, create a superposition in a large-scale system by making it dependent on a quantum particle that was in a superposition. He proposed a scenario with a cat in a locked steel chamber, wherein the cat's life or death depended on the state of a radioactive atom, whether it had decayed and emitted radiation or not. According to Schrödinger, the Copenhagen interpretation implies that the cat remains both alive and dead until the state has been observed. Schrödinger did not wish to promote the idea of dead-and-live cats as a serious possibility; on the contrary, he intended the example to illustrate the absurdity of the existing view of quantum mechanics. The idea that quantum superpositions of macroscopic states could be possible led to the Many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory.
Since Schrödinger's time, various interpretations of the mathematics of quantum mechanics have been advanced by physicists, some of which regard the "alive and dead" cat superposition as quite real, others do not. Intended as a critique of the Copenhagen interpretation (the prevailing orthodoxy in 1935), the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment remains a touchstone for modern interpretations of quantum mechanics and can be used to illustrate and compare their strengths and weaknesses.