The idea of offering cash rewards for technological innovations goes back to a time long before humans took flight. In the 1700s, governments awarded prizes for inventions of military importance — a chronometer that would keep warships from getting lost at sea, or a food preservation technique suitable for the battlefield.
But the concept had its heyday in the early 1900s, when aviation was just getting its start. Well-heeled enthusiasts and newspaper publishers offered thousands of dollars for "firsts" ranging from a short hop in an airplane to trans-Atlantic odysseys.
Today's $10 million X Prize for private-sector spaceflight is a direct descendant of the $25,000 Orteig Prize, which was won by trans-Atlantic solo aviator Charles Lindbergh. Even the federal government has gotten into the prize business: In 1999, a study by the National Academy of Engineering recommended that Congress encourage more experimentation with federal prize contests — leading to the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous robotic vehicles as well as NASA's Centennial Challenges for space-related technologies.
Here are some of history's better-known inducement prizes:
1714: Longitude Prize
British parliament offers 20,000 pounds to the first person to devise a method of determining longitude at sea to an accuracy of less than a half-degree. After 30 years of work, John Harrison develops a precision clock that could be used along with sun observations to satisfy the requirements in 1761, and is awarded the prize in 1773.
1795: Society for the Encouragement of Industry
Napoleon's Society for the Encouragement of Industry offers 12,000 francs for a method of food preservation usable by the French military. The prize is awarded in 1810 to Nicolas Appert, the inventor of food canning. Appert's method involved heat treatment of food in sealed champagne bottles.
1913: Daily Mail Trans-Atlantic Prize
Britain’s Daily Mail offers 10,000 pounds for the first nonstop trans-Atlantic airplane crossing. The prize is won in 1919 by British Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown, flying a Vickers Vimy airplane for 16 hours from Newfoundland to Ireland.
1919: Orteig Prize
New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig offers $25,000 to the first aviator to cross the Atlantic from New York to Paris (or the shores of France), or vice versa, without a stop. The prize is won in 1927 by Missouri airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh, who completes the flight in a Ryan monoplane in 33 hours and 30 minutes.
1959: Feynman Prizes
Physicist Richard Feynman puts up $1,000 each for two feats: building a motor measuring no more than one-64th of an inch on any side; and producing written text at one-25,000th scale. The first prize is won in 1960 by William McLellan. It takes until 1985 for the second prize to be won, by Stanford graduate student Thomas Newman, who used electron beam lithography to print the first page of “A Tale of Two Cities” on a page measuring 6.25 microns on a side.
1980: Fredkin Prize
Edward Fredkin, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, offers $100,000 for the first computer program to beat a reigning world chess champion. The prize is won by the inventors of IBM’s Deep Blue chess machine in 1997, after its victory over Garry Kasparov. IBM boosts the jackpot for both sides, paying $700,000 to the Deep Blue Team and $400,000 to Kasparov.
1992: Super Efficient Refrigerator Program
A consortium of U.S. electric utilities, seeking to enhance environmental quality and energy efficiency, announced a prize of $30 million to be awarded to the most energy-efficient refrigerator design that did not using environmentally harmful CFC refrigerant. Fourteen manufacturers submitted entries. The winning company, Whirlpool Corp., devised a refrigerator that used 25% less energy than the most energy-efficient available model before the contest, and 40% less than the Federal energy efficiency standard for new refrigerators.
1995: Feynman Grand Prize
The Foresight Institute offers $250,000 Feynman Prize to the person or team that devises both a motor no more than 100 nanometers wide in any direction, capable of moving atoms around, as well as a 50-nanometer-wide machine capable of adding numbers. The prize has not yet been won.
1996: Ansari X Prize
To encourage passenger space travel, the X Prize Foundation offers $10 million to the first team to develop a craft without government support that is capable of bringing the pilot plus two passengers (or equivalent ballast) to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers, then repeating the feat within two weeks. The purse must be won before the end of 2004, or else it expires.
2003: Methuselah Mouse Prize
The Methuselah Foundation establishes a fund to encourage longevity research, based on experiments with genetically engineered mice. A formula is established to reward teams who set records for mouse life span. As of June 2004, the prize total stands at more than $54,000.
2003: DARPA Grand Challenge
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency offers $1 million for the first and fastest autonomous vehicle capable of finding its way over a course from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, Nev., in less than 10 hours. The challenge is aimed at encouraging development of robotic vehicles for military applications. None of the teams can complete the course during the first competition in March 2004.
2004: NASA Centennial Challenges
NASA says it will offer prizes of up to $250,000 to encourage private-sector development of technologies that advance the agency’s space exploration agenda. Future challenges may offer $20 million or more. The agency expects to draw up the first round of specific challenges this summer.
Sources include National Academies, the X Prize Foundation, the Foresight Institute and the Druid Summer Conference.