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The History of Insurance: AD Edition

Paul Thompson
Insurance Experts' Forum, August 24, 2010

Last week, we began following the fascinating, dramatic, and compelling story of insurance from its inception around 3000 BC.

(In case you're late to the party and missed Part 1, you can check it out here.)

But that was so BC. This week we're blazing into AD, from the relatively boring (insurance-wise) Dark Ages to the (riveting) mid-14th century, when the makings of modern-day insurance really started to develop.

Dark Ages — Insurance Takes a Nap

Recent archaeological and historical research has revealed that the so-called Dark Ages were actually a vibrant, colorful period of history…just not for insurance. No insurance records have been found in or around King Arthur's Camelot, but that doesn't mean actuaries stayed at home during jousting tournaments.

1343 — Contract Year

Genoa's famous salami may not have originated in Genoa, but modern maritime insurance certainly did. The world's first written insurance contract was signed in this seaside city-state, ironically the same year as the devastating earthquake of 1343 near the port city of Naples. (I bet merchants wished they had those contracts a year earlier, eh?) Similar to ancient contracts, it was essentially a promise to loan, with an important clause attached — if the ship sank, the loan was forgiven.

Contracts like this one made it easier to spread risk among multiple investors, which was a crucial development that fueled the expansion of European trade over the next several centuries.

1600s — The Michaelangelos of Risk Assessment

The Renaissance is most famous for its scientific advances, and the world of insurance had its fair share. In fact, the 17th century marks the golden age of insurance innovations, in which big-time world players like Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat calculated a way to quantify probability (taking some of the guesswork out of risk). And Renaissance man Edmund Halley of Halley's Comet fame advanced life insurance through the world's first "mortality table."

1666–1700 — The City

1665 was a plague year in London, which was bad enough, but 1666 managed to be even worse. Of the half-million people living in the greater London area at the time, roughly 80,000 lived in the City of London, and the Great Fire (which wasn't that great, by the way) destroyed the homes of around 70,000 of them. The response to the blaze was so slow that the famous diarist (early blogger) Samuel Pepys wrote, "People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity [the stupidity] of my Lord Mayor in general."

Less simple was Nicholas Barbon, who opened the first fire insurance company in response to the catastrophe. The Fire Office, founded in 1680, specifically insured brick and frame homes and was the first private company of its kind. (But believe it or not, that was only the second-most notable thing about Nicholas If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon. Seriously.)

After recovering from the fire, the London of the 1680s was a booming international center of trade. Where there's trade, there's risk, and where there's risk, there's insurance. And where there's insurance, naturally, there's Mr. Edward Lloyd.

Mr. Lloyd owned a coffee house that was a popular hangout for sailors, merchants, and ship owners. He noticed that his fine establishment was becoming a business destination for those wishing or willing to underwrite cargoes and ships before a journey. Capitalizing on this opportunity, he founded Lloyd's of London, which is still one of the world's leading insurance marketplaces.

1752 — Benjamin Franklin (Surprised?)

Of course he was involved! The 10th son of a soap maker, Franklin had an unprecedented knack for improving the world around him. When he wasn't inventing political cartoons, coining phrases (a penny saved is a penny earned), publishing almanacs, launching the first subscription library, inventing a heat-efficient stove, swim fins, and bifocals, discovering electricity through kite experiments, enjoying beer, or helping draft the Declaration of Independence, he founded the Philadelphia Contribution for Insurance Against Loss by Fire, which is still in business.

What have you done today?

1800s — Full Steam Ahead

The first accident insurance, which insured against railroad and steamboat accidents and injuries, was available through the Franklin Health Assurance Company after 1850.

Twenty-one years later, the Great Fire of Chicago (again, not that great) drained insurance companies of their reserves and ability to pay claims, and so reinsurance was conceived. (As they say, for every insurance, there's reinsurance.) Reinsurance distributed losses between a number of insurance companies, and quickly became a central component for any insurance business.

1900s — On the Road to Esurance

So, there you have it. Take a deep breath, and revel in your newfound wealth of insurance knowledge. Now that you have the Insurance BC and AD highlights, tune in next week for the amazing true story of car insurance — from the first handwritten auto policy to online quoting and purchasing.

Check back soon for part three...

Paul Thompson is a social media communications specialist at Esurance. Ryan Looney, a copywriter at Esurance, also contributed to this story.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Paul using the “Add Your Comments” box below.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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