If risk is like a smoldering coal that may spark a fire at any moment, then insurance is our fire extinguisher.

Countries and their citizens need something to spread risk among large numbers of people and to move risk to entities that can handle it. This is how insurance emerged. Read on to learn about how insurance evolved and how it can work to protect you from being burned by risk.(To learn more about risk, check out Determining Risk And The Risk Pyramid, Risk And Diversification and Personalizing Risk Tolerance.)

Tutorial: Introduction To Insurance

King Hammurabi's Code
The main concept of insurance - that of spreading risk - has been around as long as human existence. Whether it was hunting giant elk in a group to spread the risk of being the one gored to death or shipping cargo in several different caravans to avoid losing the whole shipment to a marauding tribe, people have always been wary of risk.

The first written insurance policy appeared in ancient times on a Babylonian obelisk monument with the code of King Hammurabi carved into it. The "Hammurabi Code" was one of the first forms of written laws. These ancient laws were extreme in most respects, but it offered basic insurance in that a debtor didn't have to pay back his loans if some personal catastrophe made it impossible (disability, death, flooding, etc.).

Guild Coverage
In the dark and middle ages, most craftsmen were trained through the guild system. Apprentices spent their childhoods working for masters for little or no pay. Once they became masters themselves, they paid dues to the guild and trained their own apprentices. The wealthier guilds had large coffers that acted as a type of insurance fund. If a master's practice burned down, a common occurrence in the wooden hovels of medieval Europe, the guild would rebuild it using money from its coffers. If a master were robbed, the guild would cover his obligations until money started to flow in again. If a master were suddenly disabled or killed, the guild would support him or his widow and family. This safety net encouraged more and more people to leave farming and take up trades. As a result, the amount of goods available for trade increased, as did the range of goods and services available. The style of insurance used by guilds is still around today in the form of "group coverage". (To discover the basics to insurance, see Understand Your Insurance Contract and Life Insurance Clauses Determine Your Coverage.)

Dangerous Waters
The practice of underwriting emerged in the same London coffeehouses that operated as the unofficial stock exchange for the British Empire. In the late 1600s, shipping was just beginning between the New World and the old as colonies were being established and exotic goods were ferried back. A coffeehouse owned by Edward Lloyd, later of Lloyd's of London, was the primary meeting place for merchants, ship owners and others seeking insurance. (To read more about the history of the stock exchange, see The Stock Market: A Look Back and The Birth Of Stock Exchanges.)

A basic system for funding voyages to the new world was established. In the first stage, merchants and companies would seek funding from venture capitalists. The venture capitalists would help find people who wanted to be colonists, usually those from the more desperate areas of London, and would purchase provisions for the voyage. In exchange, the venture capitalists would be guaranteed some of the returns from the goods the colonists would produce or find in the Americas. It was widely believed that you couldn't take two left turns in America without finding a deposit of gold or other precious metals. When it turned out that this wasn't exactly true, venture capitalists still funded voyages for a share of the new bumper crop: tobacco.

After the voyage was secured by venture capitalists, the merchants and ship owners would go to Lloyd's and hand over a copy of the ship's cargo to be read to the investors and underwriters who gathered there. The people interested in taking on the risk for a set premium would sign at the bottom of the manifest beneath the figure indicating what share of the cargo they were taking responsibility for (hence, underwriting). In this way, a single voyage would have multiple underwriters, who would try to spread their risk as well by taking shares in several different voyages.

By 1654, Blaise Pascal, the Frenchman who gave us the first calculator, and his countryman Pierre de Fermat discovered a way to express probabilities and, thereby, understand levels of risk. Pascal's triangle led to the first actuary tables that were, and still are, used when calculating insurance rates. These formalized the practice of underwriting and made insurance more affordable.

Fire and Plague
In 1666, the great fire of London destroyed around 14,000 buildings. London was still recovering from the plague had that ravaged it a year earlier, and many survivors found themselves without homes. As a response to the chaos and outrage that followed the burning of London, groups of underwriters who had dealt exclusively in marine insurance formed insurance companies that offered fire insurance. Armed with Pascal's triangle, these companies quickly expanded their range of business. By 1693, the first mortality table was created using Pascal's triangle and life insurance soon followed. (To keep reading about insurance, see Fifteen Insurance Policies You Don't Need, Five Insurance Policies Everyone Should Have and How Much Life Insurance Should You Carry?)

The Slow Exodus to America
Insurance companies thrived in Europe, especially after the industrial revolution. In America, the story was very different. Colonists' lives were fraught with dangers that no insurance company would touch. As a result of lack food, wars with indigenous people and disease, almost three out of every four colonists died in the first 40 years of settlement. It took more than 100 years for insurance to establish itself in America. When it finally did, it brought the maturity in both practice and policies that developed during that same period of time in Europe.

Related Articles
  1. Active Trading Fundamentals

    The Companies of Peter Theil's Founders Fund

    Learn about the major public companies that Peter Thiel has invested in and companies that are on the verge of going public at multibillion-dollar valuations.
  2. Insurance

    Who is a Beneficiary?

    A beneficiary is a person or entity that receives funds, assets, property or other benefits from a trust, will, or life insurance policy.
  3. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    ETF Analysis: SPDR S&P Insurance

    Learn about the SPDR S&P Insurance exchange-traded fund, which follows the S&P Insurance Select Industry Index by investing in equities of U.S. insurers.
  4. Retirement

    Strategies for a Worry-Free Retirement

    Worried about retirement? Here are several strategies to greatly reduce the chance your nest egg will end up depleted.
  5. Markets

    The 5 Biggest Canadian Insurance Companies

    Learn more about the insurance industry as a whole, how it functions in Canada, and the five largest Canada-based insurance companies.
  6. Entrepreneurship

    Top 10 Startups That Emerged in Chicago

    Understand why Chicago has become one of the best places to work or start a new business. Learn about the top 10 startups in Chicago.
  7. Entrepreneurship

    Top 10 Startups That Emerged in New York City

    Understand why the startup scene has grown, and discover why it has become a large part of New York City. Learn about the top 10 New York City startups.
  8. Entrepreneurship

    Top 5 Startups That Emerged in Detroit

    Learn how startups are changing the face of Detroit, a city long dominated by large corporations, and identify the specific Detroit startups leading the trend.
  9. Entrepreneurship

    Top 5 Startups That Emerged in Boston

    Learn why Boston is a hot market for startups, and familiarize yourself with a few of the top startups that have emerged from the city.
  10. Entrepreneurship

    Top 10 Startups That Emerged in Austin

    Understand why Austin, Texas has become one of the premier places for a startup to launch its operations. Learn about the top 10 startups in Austin.
RELATED TERMS
  1. Venture Capitalist

    An investor who either provides capital to startup ventures or ...
  2. Comprehensive Glass Policy

    An insurance policy that covers glass that has been broken or ...
  3. Coastal Barrier Improvement (CBI) ...

    A federal law that makes federal disaster relief and federal ...
  4. Net Collections

    A term used in medical accounting to describe the amount of money ...
  5. Corridor Deductible

    Expenses that are paid by the insured in excess of an insurance ...
  6. Distribution Clause

    An insurance policy provision which determines how the coverage ...
RELATED FAQS
  1. How do you find the break-even point using a payback period?

    It does not make sense to find the breakeven point using a company's payback period. A company's payback period is concerned ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. What happens if my insurance claim falls below the deductible level?

    Though the ins and outs of health insurance are often confusing, the concept of the insurance deductible is relatively straightforward. ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How is the deductible I paid for my insurance claim treated for tax purposes?

    The deductible you pay on your health insurance policy may be tax-deductible if you meet certain conditions. However, whether ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. What are the main factors that impact share prices in the insurance sector?

    The main factors that impact share prices in the insurance sector are interest rates, earnings and actuarial risk. In the ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. What is considered a reasonable interest rate for a syndicated loan?

    A 2010 survey of syndicated loans found an average interest rate of 7.9%. However, the majority of syndicated loans are floating ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Why do insurance policies have deductibles?

    Insurance policies have deductibles for behavioral and financial reasons. Moral Hazards Deductibles mitigate the behavioral ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Trading Center
×

You are using adblocking software

Want access to all of Investopedia? Add us to your “whitelist”
so you'll never miss a feature!