Calculation Tools Used Way Back When

A look at what actuarial work was like in 1949

Photograph: Courtesy of Principal Financial Group

The IBM 650 was used around 1956. The 650 was one of IBM’s first computers marketed as a true general-purpose computer with a full set of decimal arithmetic, logical and control instructions.


The calculation tools actuaries used in 1949—when the Society of Actuaries (SOA) was founded—were much different than the technology of today. Let’s wind the clock back a bit and see what actuarial work was like in 1949.

Calculators and Computers

  • Worksheets relied on hand calculations using simple arithmetic. Often, each number was recalculated independently to catch errors.
  • Mechanical desktop calculators had the user turn a crank with one hand to add or multiply a column, then move the carriage with the other hand to get to the next column of numbers.

For information about tools and resources available to actuaries via the SOA, go to and click on the Tools and Resources tab. We’ve come a long way!

Actuarial Formulas and Models

  • Computations often were run at five-year intervals.
  • Investment yields sometimes were derived by logarithmic formulas.
  • Mortality tables contained static rates based on experience, with annuity tables including a margin to allow for improvement.
  • Financial projections of assets and liabilities for a life company or pension plan were done infrequently because of the heavy calculations needed for even one set of assumptions.

Source: Greb, Richard. 1999. The First 50 Years: Society of Actuaries 1949–1999, 52–53. Schaumburg, IL: Society of Actuaries.

Copyright © 2019 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.