The roots of insurance might be traced to Babylonia, where traders were encouraged to assume the risks of the caravan trade through loans that were repaid (with interest) only after the goods had arrived safely—a practice resembling bottomry and given legal force in the Code of Hammurabi (c.2100 B.C.). The Phoenicians and the Greeks applied a similar system to their seaborne commerce. The Romans used burial clubs as a form of life insurance, providing funeral expenses for members and later payments to the survivors.
With the growth of towns and trade in Europe, the medieval guilds undertook to protect their members from loss by fire and shipwreck, to ransom them from captivity by pirates, and to provide decent burial and support in sickness and poverty. By the middle of the 14th cent., as evidenced by the earliest known insurance contract (Genoa, 1347), marine insurance was practically universal among the maritime nations of Europe. In London, Lloyd's Coffee House (1688) was a place where merchants, shipowners, and underwriters met to transact business. By the end of the 18th cent. Lloyd's had progressed into one of the first modern insurance companies. In 1693 the astronomer Edmond Halley constructed the first mortality table, based on the statistical laws of mortality and compound interest. The table, corrected (1756) by Joseph Dodson, made it possible to scale the premium rate to age; previously the rate had been the same for all ages.
Insurance developed rapidly with the growth of British commerce in the 17th and 18th cent. Prior to the formation of corporations devoted solely to the business of writing insurance, policies were signed by a number of individuals, each of whom wrote his name and the amount of risk he was assuming underneath the insurance proposal, hence the term underwriter. The first stock companies to engage in insurance were chartered in England in 1720, and in 1735, the first insurance company in the American colonies was founded at Charleston, S.C. Fire insurance corporations were formed in New York City (1787) and in Philadelphia (1794). The Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia sponsored (1759) the first life insurance corporation in America, for the benefit of Presbyterian ministers and their dependents. After 1840, with the decline of religious prejudice against the practice, life insurance entered a boom period. In the 1830s the practice of classifying risks was begun.
The New York fire of 1835 called attention to the need for adequate reserves to meet unexpectedly large losses; Massachusetts was the first state to require companies by law (1837) to maintain such reserves. The great Chicago fire (1871) emphasized the costly nature of fires in structurally dense modern cities. Reinsurance, whereby losses are distributed among many companies, was devised to meet such situations and is now common in other lines of insurance. The Workmen's Compensation Act of 1897 in Britain required employers to insure their employees against industrial accidents. Public liability insurance, fostered by legislation, made its appearance in the 1880s; it attained major importance with the advent of the automobile.
In the 19th cent. many friendly or benefit societies were founded to insure the life and health of their members, and many fraternal orders were created to provide low-cost, members-only insurance. Fraternal orders continue to provide insurance coverage, as do most labor organizations. Many employers sponsor group insurance policies for their employees; such policies generally include not only life insurance, but sickness and accident benefits and old-age pensions, and the employees usually contribute a certain percentage of the premium.
Since the late 19th cent. there has been a growing tendency for the state to enter the field of insurance, especially with respect to safeguarding workers against sickness and disability, either temporary or permanent, destitute old age, and unemployment (see social security). The U.S. government has also experimented with various types of crop insurance, a landmark in this field being the Federal Crop Insurance Act of 1938. In World War II the government provided life insurance for members of the armed forces; since then it has provided other forms of insurance such as pensions for veterans and for government employees.
After 1944 the supervision and regulation of insurance companies, previously an exclusive responsibility of the states, became subject to regulation by Congress under the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Until the 1950s, most insurance companies in the United States were restricted to providing only one type of insurance, but then legislation was passed to permit fire and casualty companies to underwrite several classes of insurance. Many firms have since expanded, many mergers have occurred, and multiple-line companies now dominate the field. In 1999, Congress repealed banking laws that had prohibited commercial banks from being in the insurance business; this measure was expected to result in expansion by major banks into the insurance arena.
In recent years insurance premiums (particularly for liability policies) have increased rapidly, leaving unprecedented numbers of Americans uninsured. Many blame the insurance conglomerates, contending that U.S. citizens are paying for bad risks made by the companies. Insurance companies place the burden of guilt on law firms and their clients, who they say have brought unreasonably large civil suits to court, a trend that has become so common in the United States that legislation has been proposed to limit lawsuit awards. Catastrophic earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires in late 1980s and the 90s have also strained many insurance company's reserves.