01 Feb 2024
by John Barnes

History lesson: classification societies past and present

How classification altered the world of shipping, and the subsequent societies that expanded far beyond marine activities. 

In a strange sort of way, coffee is one of the most important commodities in the history of shipping. By the latter part of the 17th century, hundreds of coffee houses had emerged in London following the craze for the new drink. 

These were places where, among others, merchants could meet and discuss their business. One such had been opened by Edward Lloyd on Tower Street in 1686, moving to Lombard Street in 1691 and it was here the seeds of classification were sown. 

The need for standards 

By the middle of the 18th century, with shipping big business and merchants, shipowners, and captains sharing the risks and rewards of individual voyages, there was a need for both information and financial protection. 

Sailors, merchants and shipowners would congregate at Lloyd’s Coffee House to arrange charters, fix insurance and learn the latest news. Lloyd’s provided the latter by publishing a regular digest and, by 1734, this would become the daily newspaper Lloyd’s List. 

With the underwriting and insuring of the risks having become established practice, it was soon obvious that those doing the underwriting needed a way of assessing the quality of the ships they were being asked to cover.  

To offer such information, in 1760 a society for the registry of shipping was formed in London and proceeded to publish an annual Register of Ships from 1764, initially for use in the years 1764 to 1766. 

It listed vessels rated or classed, based on surveys of the condition of their hulls and equipment. This was the world's first so-called classification society that would in due course become Lloyd's Register of Shipping (LR). 

Read: Lloyd’s Register chief - ‘Emissions reduction remains a key focus’ 

A measure of risk 

Classification of the condition of each ship was on an annual basis. The hull was classified as A, E, I, O or U, according to the state of its construction and the assessment of its continuing soundness (or lack thereof). 

Equipment was rated G, M, or B, standing for good, middling, or bad. In time, G, M and B were replaced by 1, 2 and 3, which is the origin of the expression ‘A1’, meaning first or highest class. The purpose of this system was not to assess safety, fitness for purpose or seaworthiness of the ship, it was to evaluate risk. 

However, there were no clearly defined rules or standards at the time and the classifications were riddled with inconsistencies. This led to friction between ship owners and underwriters, and in 1799 the frustrated underwriters formed the Society of Merchants, Shipowners and Underwriters and published their own, alternative register. 
The resulting rivalry drove most to the brink of bankruptcy. Eventually common sense prevailed and in 1834 the two registers amalgamated to form LR. 

It began producing Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping which classified all ships calling at British ports, and in 1835 published the first set of rules for the survey and classification of vessels. A full-time bureaucracy of inspectors and support personnel was put in place to carry out the surveys and additional work. 

Emergence of other societies 

Meanwhile, a rival to Lloyd’s had been established in Antwerp in June 1828 by underwriters Alexandre Delehaye and Louis van den Broek, and insurance broker Auguste Morel. The Bureau Veritas name was adopted in 1829 and in 1832, it moved to Paris. 

Others class societies followed over the years such as Registro Italiano Navale, (RINA) formed in Genoa in 1861; the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), formed in New York in 1862; det Norske Veritas (DNV), formed in Oslo in 1864; Germanischer Lloyd (GL) formed in Hamburg in 1867 and incorporated into DNV since; and Nippon Kaiji Kyokai (ClassNK), formed in Tokyo in 1899. 

An agreement to cooperate 

Given the areas in which these organisations operated, it made sense for some degree of cooperation between them to establish common standards of safety. This initially led to the International Convention on Load Lines of 1930 recommending collaboration between the classification societies to secure: "As much uniformity as possible in the application of the standards of strength upon which freeboard is based.”  

Later, in 1939, RINA hosted the first conference of the major societies, attended by ABS, BV, DNV, GL, LR and ClassNK, which agreed on further cooperation between them. A second conference in 1955, led to the creation of working parties on specific topics and, in September 1968, the formation of IACS, the International Association of Classification Societies.  

IACS provides technical support and guidance and develops unified interpretations of the international statutory regulations developed by the member states of the International Maritime Organization, the UN body dealing with all matters maritime. 

Today, 11 societies are members of IACS and they account for more than 90% of the world's merchant ships by tonnage. The Russian Maritime Register of Shipping (RS), a former member, was removed in March 2022 following the invasion of Ukraine. 

In conclusion, what is class? 

A classification society is an independent body that draws up standards in the form of rules for the construction of ships, based on experience and research, and following strict safety concerns. 

It then oversees vessels being built to these rules and assigns them with a so-called class notation which identifies the specific rules that the vessel has been built to. Finally, it carries out regular surveys of the vessel at fixed intervals to ensure it still meets the standards set. 

This is to ensure their hull, structure, machinery, and equipment conform to International Maritime Organization and MARPOL standards. Vessels out of class may be uninsurable or not permitted to sail by other agencies. 

Over the years, many of the societies have expanded their activities beyond shipping to include a wide range of non-maritime activities. Today they can be found covering such areas as nuclear engineering, rail traction and aviation - a far cry from their origins in the 18th century.