The Arithmeter

How the American life insurance business became mechanized

Photographs: Allen Bourgeois


Elizur Wright (1804–1885) was a pioneer in establishing sound actuarial practices. It is said he built the arithmeter (shown here) with his own hands to expedite the thousands of calculations made necessary by the landmark legislation that he had drafted. The legislation required the Massachusetts Insurance Department to compute net level premium reserves on all policies in force in domestic and out-of-state life companies.

According to historians, at least three arithmeters still exist. One of these treasured artifacts resides at the Society of Actuaries (SOA) headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois. The arithmeter has been described as the historical starting point of the mechanization of the American life insurance business.

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