1880 – Generali: Groundbreaking Tables for Groundbreaking Missions

Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, explorers dreamed of reaching the furthest ends of the Earth. In 1926, the legendary Roald Amundsen, who had reached the South Pole at the beginning of the 1910s, also attempted to reach the North Pole,  in partnership with the Italians. It was, in fact, Umberto Nobile who convinced him of the validity of the airship as a means of transport. The N-1 airship, designed by Nobile himself, was built in Ciampino between 1923 and 1924, and then sold by Italy to the Norwegians, the expedition’s main supporters, who renamed it Norge.

As is well known, the mission was successful and, on the 12th of May, the flags of the three nations most involved – namely Italy, Norway, and the United States – were launched from the airship onto the North Pole. Aside from the undertaking itself, however, the results left much to be desired, from a scientific point of view. To obtain a significant contribution, it was necessary to touch the North Pole, not just fly over it.

For this reason, Nobile led a second expedition, this time entirely Italian and more research-oriented. He left from Baggio, near Milan, on the 15th of April 1928, with the N-4 airship, renamed Italia and the twin of Norge. Generali – already part of the group of companies in negotiations to protect the Italian crew of the 1926 expedition – was also present on this occasion.

Generali’s commitment to life insurance dates back to the creation of the company. In the port of Trieste in 1831, protecting people from all types of risk meant adding life insurance, not very widespread in the Habsburg Empire, to the common transport coverage. Unlike others, Generali considered it indispensable and immediately included it in its business. A year after its foundation, the company prepared three types of life policies and, in 1834, printed the first special rate card with premiums calculated according to the age of the policyholder, based on statistics developed in the eighteenth century, in France: the Duvillard table for insurance in the event of death and the Deparcieux table for life insurance.

The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by an economic crisis that culminated in the crash of the Vienna stock exchange in 1873. At that time, Generali opened a season of reforms undersigned by Marco Besso, secretary general in Trieste from 1877 and then director and chairman until his passing in 1920. Besso was a proud advocate of life insurance and wanted to develop it. Working with Vitale Laudi (mathematician, head of the Trieste life branch) and Wilhelm Lazarus, Generali agent in Hamburg, Besso renewed the technical bases, paving the way for the great expansion of life insurance. In 1877, Laudi and Lazarus were the authors of the first Generali actuarial table (called L-L, from the initials of their surnames). This table stemmed from the need to find a mathematical function to apply to human mortality. Despite their different backgrounds, Lazarus and Laudi found themselves united in the face of the problem of creating, for Generali, applied mathematics that didn’t exist at the time. The two used the best data in circulation, processed by a British commission between 1839 and 1843. The result was exponential growth of the life branch, particularly in the Empire and in Italy. It was Generali’s last global table since, in the subsequent years, countries independently regulated the technical-insurance bases, often based on national censuses.

A quarter of a century after Lazarus and Laudi, Julius Graf then drew up the G table, which replaced the L-L table for insurance in the event of death. Graf, who succeeded Laudi as director of the life branch in Trieste, embodied the evolution of the figure of the actuary: the mathematician in charge of determining the future trend of demographic, economic and financial variables, imagining the reality in the short, medium, and long term. Graf had received solid academic training in Vienna and was hired by Generali for his specialised skills.

Generali’s interest and participation in the progress of actuarial studies was constant over time. Pietro Smolensky, director of the life branch until the end of the 1930s, was one of the founders of the Italian Institute of Actuaries.

The improvement of statistics, the excellence of the data, the continuous increase in analytical skills, meant better premiums for people. The forecasts, now more accurate, gave the company greater constancy for  policyholders. Actuaries calculated risks and costs, identified product prices and, at the same time, helped develop the most satisfying solutions for people.

Besso’s commitment to life insurance and the evolution of actuarial studies which Generali had embraced led to important results. The impact of life insurance on the company’s overall premium income was exponential.

The life insurance policies of the Generali Historical Archive are interesting documents because they talk about the lives of those who insured themselves and, at the same time, the events of the time. Each policy introduces the lives of many people: teachers, merchants, soldiers, children. There are those of two future popes (Pius X and John XXIII) and a ruler (the last Austrian emperor, Charles I) and, finally, that of Umberto Nobile’s expedition to the North Pole.

Insurance policy for the crew of the airship Italia (Rome, April 5, 1928) / ph. Massimo Gardone

The crew policy, a single document for all the companies that participated in the co-insurance, was stipulated with the Royal Italian Geographic Society. A table indicates the insured persons, the beneficiaries in the event of death, and the guaranteed capital, expressed in Italian lire. The greatest compensation concerned Umberto Nobile, the expedition’s commander, for 650,000 lire. The next highest reimbursements were those for engineer Felice Trojani, insured for 300,000 lire, and Natale Cecioni, for 200,000, followed, with lower figures, by the other members of the crew.

The end of the Italia airship is sadly well-known. It reached the North Pole on the 24th of May, but bad weather prevented it from landing, and it returned to the Svalbard islands. However, the adverse climate and the weight of the ice accumulated on the structure of the airship caused it to crash onto the pack ice. It was 10.33 am on the 25th of May 1928. Ten men, including Umberto Nobile, were thrown onto the pack ice, while another six remained on board: their bodies and the remains of the Italia would never be found. Several nations were mobilised to save the survivors, and some of the rescuers, including Amundsen himself, lost their lives, while others were rescued by the surviving explorers and guided to the famous “red tent”, where everyone waited to be saved.