Babbage among the insurers: Big 19th-century data and the public interest
History of the Human Sciences
MetadataShow full item record
Wilson, D. (2018). Babbage among the insurers: Big 19th-century data and the public interest. History of the Human Sciences, 31 (5), 129-153. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695118818978
This article examines life assurance and the politics of ‘big data’ in mid-19th-century Britain. The datasets generated by life assurance companies were vast archives of information about human longevity. Actuaries distilled these archives into mortality tables – immensely valuable tools for predicting mortality and so pricing risk. The status of the mortality table was ambiguous, being both a public and a private object: often computed from company records they could also be extrapolated from quasi-public projects such as the Census or clerical records. Life assurance more generally straddled the line between private enterprise and collective endeavour, though its advocates stressed the public interest in its success. Reforming actuaries such as Thomas Rowe Edmonds wanted the data on which mortality tables were based to be made publicly available, but faced resistance. Such resistance undermined insurers’ claims to be scientific in spirit and hindered Edmonds’s personal quest for a law of mortality. Edmonds pushed instead for an open actuarial science alongside fellow-travellers at the Statistical Society of London, which was populated by statisticians such as William Farr (whose subsequent work, it is argued, was influenced by Edmonds) as well as by radical mathematicians such as Charles Babbage. The article explores Babbage’s little-known foray into the world of insurance, both as a budding actuary but also as a fierce critic of the industry. These debates over the construction, ownership, and accessibility of insurance datasets show that concern about the politics of big data did not begin in the 21st century.
Foundation for the Future ()
External DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695118818978
This record's URL: https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/284156