Merchants have sought methods to minimize risks since early times. Pictured, Governors of the Wine Merchant's Guild
by Ferdinand Bol
, c. 1680.
Methods for transferring or distributing risk were practiced by Chinese and Babylonian traders as long ago as the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, respectively. Chinese merchants travelling treacherous river rapids would redistribute their wares across many vessels to limit the loss due to any single vessel's capsizing. The Babylonians developed a system which was recorded in the famous Code of Hammurabi, c. 1750 BC, and practiced by early Mediterranean sailing merchants. If a merchant received a loan to fund his shipment, he would pay the lender an additional sum in exchange for the lender's guarantee to cancel the loan should the shipment be stolen, or lost at sea.
Circa 800 BC, the inhabitants of Rhodes created the 'general average'. This allowed groups of merchants to pay to insure their goods being shipped together. The collected premiums would be used to reimburse any merchant whose goods were jettisoned during transport, whether due to storm or sinkage.
Separate insurance contracts (i.e., insurance policies not bundled with loans or other kinds of contracts) were invented in Genoa in the 14th century, as were insurance pools backed by pledges of landed estates. The first known insurance contract dates from Genoa in 1347, and in the next century maritime insurance developed widely and premiums were intuitively varied with risks. These new insurance contracts allowed insurance to be separated from investment, a separation of roles that first proved useful in marine insurance.
Insurance became far more sophisticated in Enlightenment era Europe, and specialized varieties developed.
Property insurance as we know it today can be traced to the Great Fire of London, which in 1666 devoured more than 13,000 houses. The devastating effects of the fire converted the development of insurance "from a matter of convenience into one of urgency, a change of opinion reflected in Sir Christopher Wren's inclusion of a site for 'the Insurance Office' in his new plan for London in 1667." A number of attempted fire insurance schemes came to nothing, but in 1681, economist Nicholas Barbon and eleven associates established the first fire insurance company, the "Insurance Office for Houses," at the back of the Royal Exchange to insure brick and frame homes. Initially, 5,000 homes were insured by his Insurance Office.
At the same time, the first insurance schemes for the underwriting of business ventures became available. By the end of the seventeenth century, London's growing importance as a center for trade was increasing demand for marine insurance. In the late 1680s, Edward Lloyd opened a coffee house, which became the meeting place for parties in the shipping industry wishing to insure cargoes and ships, and those willing to underwrite such ventures. These informal beginnings led to the establishment of the insurance market Lloyd's of London and several related shipping and insurance businesses.
The first life insurance policies were taken out in the early 18th century. The first company to offer life insurance was the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office, founded in London in 1706 by William Talbot and Sir Thomas Allen. Edward Rowe Mores established the Society for Equitable Assurances on Lives and Survivorship in 1762.
It was the world's first mutual insurer and it pioneered age based premiums based on mortality rate laying "the framework for scientific insurance practice and development" and "the basis of modern life assurance upon which all life assurance schemes were subsequently based."
In the late 19th century "accident insurance" began to become available. The first company to offer accident insurance was the Railway Passengers Assurance Company, formed in 1848 in England to insure against the rising number of fatalities on the nascent railway system.
By the late 19th century governments began to initiate national insurance programs against sickness and old age. Germany built on a tradition of welfare programs in Prussia and Saxony that began as early as in the 1840s. In the 1880s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced old age pensions, accident insurance and medical care that formed the basis for Germany's welfare state. In Britain more extensive legislation was introduced by the Liberal government in the 1911 National Insurance Act. This gave the British working classes the first contributory system of insurance against illness and unemployment. This system was greatly expanded after the Second World War under the influence of the Beveridge Report, to form the first modern welfare state.