Open main menu
This page needs to be proofread.


Guesses at the probable length of life for the purpose of valuing or commuting life-estates, leases or annuities were made even "Mo by the ancients, and crude estimates of the number of years purchase such interests are worth occur in Roman law and in many medieval writings. In 1540 the English parliament enacted that an estate for a single life should be valued as a lease of seven years, one for two lives as a lease of fourteen years, and for three lives as a lease of twenty-one years. More than a century later The Cambridge Tables for renewing of Leases and purchasing Liens, a standard work in England, with the certificate of Sir Isaac Newton to its accuracy, proposed, as a remedy for the inequity of this fanciful rule, to make the increase for each additional life less by one year, so that, valuing a single life at ten years, two lives shall be reckoned as nineteen years and three lives as twenty-seven years. No distinction of ages was recognized, and the results, tabulated to decimal parts of months, are worthless. Thus the foremost minds of the world had as yet no apprehension of a true method of reasoning on the subject. The first clear insight into the character of the problem appears in Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of M ortalily, published in 1661 under the name of John Graunt, a haberdasher and train-band captain of London. Graunt recognized the principle of uniformity in large groups of vital and social facts, and actually prepared, from the mortality registers of London, what he calls a “ Table showing of one hundred quick conceptions, how many die within six years, how many the next decade, and so for every decade till 76.” This was the earliest crude suggestion of a table of mortality, and Graunt's interest in the inquiry was scientific, without definite practical purpose. But a little later the sale of annuities was pressed upon governments as a method of discounting future revenues. In 1671 John de Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, reported to the states general a plan for such sales upon a scientific method, the insight and skill of which, had he possessed proper statistical data, would have anticipated results only reached by later generations. The report, however, was buried in the Dutch archives and forgotten for nearly two centuries. It was unknown in England when, in 1692, the government undertook the sale of annuities. A loan of £I, 000,000 was offered, each £100 paid in to purchase a life annuity of £I4, without distinction of age. A table accompanied the offer, purporting to show how many of 10,000 persons now living, old and young taken together at random, are likely to die in each year from one to ninety-nine. The purchasers, though without clear understanding of the principle, were instinctively shrewd enough to select healthy young lives for annuitants, and the nation paid enormously for the error. This speculation of the public treasury led the eminent mathematician and astronomer, Dr Edmund Halley, to examine the subject. In 1693 he presented to the Royal Society a study of “The degrees of mortality of mankind.” The parish registers of England took no note of age at death, and Halley, perceiving that the average duration of life in large groups of persons can only be determined Halley's . .

T, ,, ,, ,, when ages at death are known, sought in vain a statistical basis for such an inquiry in his own and in many other countries. But it happened that the city of Breslau in Silesia had kept such records, and he succeeded in obtaining the registers for five years, 1687-1691, including 6193 births and 5869 deaths. No census of the city having been taken, Halley made the best estimate he could of the population, and computed how many of a thousand children taken at the age of one year will die in each succeeding year. Arranging the results in three parallel columns, showing in successive lines the age, the number living at that age, and the number of deaths during the year, he formed the first mortality table. The arrangement was itself a discovery, exhibiting at a glance the essential data for valuing life-risks, and suggesting solutions for problems which had puzzled the ablest students. This general form of the mortality table remains in use as the natural and best for such collections of facts. The method of using such a table in calculating the values of life contingencies was also discovered by Dr Halley. He showed that where'a payment is to be made ata future date, if a named person be then alive, its present value is the sum which compounded at interest during the interval will amount to that payment multiplied by the fraction representing the probability that the person will survive. These two elements, compound interest and the probability of life or death, are the foundations of the theory of life contingencies. From Halley's time the progress of the theory has been in three directions: first, in accumulating facts from which averages are deduced, and analysing the data so as to eliminate disturbing influences, that is, in constructing trustworthy tables of mortality; secondly, in extending the inferences from such tables, and multiplying their applications to needs of practical life; and thirdly, in facilitating the calculations which these applications require. But while Halley thus firmly and lastingly drew, in outline, the theory of life contingencies, the numerical results attained by him were grossly imperfect. Forced by the lack of data to assume that the population was stationary, and to rely on a rude estimate of its numbers, he well knew that his conclusions were but provisional. Yet they were far in advance of the general mind of his time. As late as 1694, and even in 1703, parliament substantially re-enacted the old law for valuing leases at seven years for each life. The meagre Breslau Table long remained the only serious attempt to utilize actual observations of mortality for scientific purposes. In 1746 A. de Parcieux (1703-1768), a mathematician of Paris, published an Essaisurles probabililés de la durée de la vie humiiine, in which he presented mortality tables formed by himself, one from the records of certain Tontine associations, and live others from those of several religious orders in Paris. The Tontine experience table was a much closer approximation to the true course of mortality, as shown by later investigations, than any of its predecessors, and indeed now appears, despite the crude manner in which the materials were treated, to have been more accurate and more trustworthy than the Northampton or even the Carlisle Table of much later date. The essay of de Parcieux was an important source of information to advanced students in France and Germany, but attracted no general or popular interest, nor was it followed up by progressive researches of the same character in continental Europe, While it remained almost unnoticed in England.,

Throughout the 18th century the customary treatment of life annuities was as chaotic and fanciful as before, though some writers of eminence, most notably Dr Thomas Simpson of London (1752), treated the theory of the subject with great intelligence, and in 1753 James Dodson of London (great-grandfather of Augustus de Morgan) projected a life insurance company in which the premiums should be accommodated justly to the ages of the insured. But life insurance as a business really began with the Equitable Society of London, founded in 1762. The associates petitioned for a charter, but the law officers of the crown refused it, saying that the scheme depended for success on the truth of certain tables of life and death, “ Whereby the Chance of Mortality is attempted to be reduced to a certain standard. This is a mere speculation, never tried in practice.” The society was organized as a voluntary association, and began business in 1 76 5. Its premiums were computed from the Breslau Table, with some corrections from the London Bills of Mortality, and were far higher than any now in use. But the managers, in face of actual business, needed more light. Dr Richard Price, a student of the new science of life contingencies, was consulted, and soon devised tests of the society's experience and measures of the financial results, which are in principle those still practised. He also aspired to construct a more accurate table of mortality, and discovered data in certain parish registers of Northampton which promised to represent the average of life in England. From these he formed in 1780 the Northampton Table N rm of Mortality, and computed a new and largely reduced, nz 7:1132 scale of premiums for the society. The historical importance of the Northampton Table lies in the profound

impression it made on the general mass of intelligent persons.