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Charles Babbage and the Assurance of Lives

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129815D
Original Publication Date: 1994-Sep-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

MARTIN CAMPBELL-KELLY: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

This article describes the role of Charles Babbage in the development of life insurance and the reform of the life insurance industry, and the significance of the Assurance of Lives in his intellectual development.

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THIS DOCUMENT IS AN APPROXIMATE REPRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL.

Copyright ©; 1994 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Charles Babbage and the Assurance of Lives

MARTIN CAMPBELL-KELLY

In 1824 Charles Babbage was appointed actuary of the Protector Life Assurance Society of London, which led him to prepare a new set of life tables and undertake a study of the life insurance industry. He subsequently wrote his well-known book the Assurance of Lives (1826).' This article describes the role of Charles Babbage in the development of life insurance and the reform of the life insurance industry, and the significance of the Assurance of Lives in his intellectual development.

During his lifetime, Charles Babbage (1791-1871) was a well-known scientific figure, but after his death he was largely forgotten for 80 years. He rose to prominence again in the early 1950s as a result of the remarkable extent to which his Analytical Engine had anticipated the modern computer. Almost as if making up for the decades of neglect, there was at first a considerable critical overreaction and an exaggeration of almost all of Babbage's other accomplishments. However, during the 1970s and 1980s there has been a steady reappraisal of his work, and we are gradually getting a better measure of his achievements -- for example, as a mathematician, as a table- maker, as an economist, and as a cryptographer.25 While Babbage made several major contributions to knowledge, notably in computing machinery, mathematics, and economics, many of his other contributions -- including life insurance -- can be fairly described, if not as second rate, then certainly of the second rank. (For a fuller discussion of Babbage's published output, see Vol. I of the Works of Babbage.)

Prior to his involvement in life insurance, Babbage's background had been largely mathematical and academic. He had graduated from Cambridge in 1814 and had married and settled down in London the following year. With an income that Babbage estimated at 450 a year, made up of an allowance from his father and his wife's own income, he was able to live the life of an amateur gentleman of science.7 He was elected to the Royal Society for his mathematical researches in 1816, and in 1822 he achieved major scientific stature by his proposal for a Difference Engine for calculating and printing mathematical tables. The construction of the Difference Engine was to be his principal occupation for the next decade, so his interest in life insurance was a diversion that occupied only a fraction of his time during 1824 and 1825.

(Image Omitted: In 1824 or a little earlier, Babbage was asked to become the actuary of a soon- to-be-promoted joint-stock company, the Protector Life Assurance Society of London. He recorded in his autobiography: The proposition made to me was that I should have the entire management of the concern as director and actuary, with a...