10 Technology Prizes That Propelled Us Forward

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Sometimes, people just need a little added incentive. Here are 10 technology-related prizes that helped move us forward.

1. Orteig Prize

In 1919, French-born, New York City hotelier Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize to the first pilot who made a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. For years, pilots gave it a shot and many paid with their lives. In May 1927, an unknown mail pilot arrived at Roosevelt Field in Long Island with a monoplane and intentions of winning the prize.

Veteran pilots laughed at his attempt to use a monoplane (biplanes were the standard), but on May 21, after more than 33 hours of flight, 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris. After his flight was certified, Lindbergh won the $25,000 prize and interest in flight increased dramatically—applications for pilots’ licenses increased by 300 percent, the numbers of licensed aircrafts increased by 400 percent, and U.S. airline passengers rose from 5,782 in 1926 to 173,405 in 1929.

The Orteig Prize is considered the inspiration for many other prizes and was influential in growing the airline industry to what it is today.

2. The Longitude Prize

Sailors found it difficult to determine longitude while sailing across the oceans. Most used dead reckoning, but this proved inaccurate (remember all those explorers who didn’t realize where they landed?) In 1714, the British Parliament enacted the Longitude Prize, offering £20,000 to the person who determined longitude within 30 nautical miles.

John Harrison was a poorly educated joint worker who became known for his precision clocks. In 1730, he started constructing the H1, a clock that worked for only one day, but provided excellent time and longitudinal measurements. He subsequently provided more and more prototypes until he created H4—and H5 and K1, basically copies of H4—which helped sailors pinpoint longitude. While many suspected his pocket watch was a fluke, it eventually became the standard. However, he didn’t win the prize until 1773, when he was well into his 70s.

3. Fredkin Prize

Edward Fredkin was an early innovator in artificial intelligence and computer science, creating the Fredkin gate, a circuit usable in reverse computing. In 1980, Fredkin issued a challenge to fellow computer scientists—$100,000 to the first team to build a computer that bests a chess grandmaster.

In 1996, IBM’s Deep Blue squared off against Garry Kasparov, a Russian grandmaster who achieved his title in 1985, at the age of 22. Deep Blue was a descendant of IBM computer scientist Feng Hsu’s ChipTest and Deep Thought—developed when Hsu was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. (Kasparov had easily defeated Deep Thought twice.) Deep Blue became the first computer to win a game against a reigning world champion, but Kasparov won the match 4 to 2. But on May 11, 1997, Deep Blue beat Kasparov in the final round of a tied, six game match. Kasparov demanded a rematch, but IBM dismantled the computer. On July 29, 1997, Hsu, Murray Campbell, and A. Joseph Hoane Jr. won the $100,000.

4. Kremer Prizes

We had been promised a future where everyone buzzes around with jetpacks, but human-powered flight has yet to become a reality. In 1959, Henry Kremer created a series of prizes to encourage human flight.

On August 23, 1977, Paul MacCready won £50,000 when his Gossamer Condor, a lightweight human powered flying machine, became the first to fly a figure eight around two markers. In 1979, MacCready won £100,000 when his Gossamer Albatross flew from England to France—the first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel. Bryan Allen piloted (or pedaled) both crafts. In 1983, a group of MIT designers won £20,000 when their MIT Monarch B craft beat the speed record by completing a 1.5 dm course in less than three minutes with an average speed of 32km/h. No word on when the rest of us can commute with a pedaled flying machine.

5. Ansari X Prize

In 1996, Dr. Peter Diamandis read an article about Charles Lindbergh and learned about the Orteig Prize. Ever since he'd watched the moon landing as a fifth-grader, he'd been fascinated by space travel. But he'd grown tired of waiting for space travel to become prevalent. After starting several private companies to encourage space travel, he decided to offer a prize for commercial space travel. He partnered with the Ansari family to offer the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award to the first team that carried three people 100 km into space twice within a two-week span. (He founded the X Foundation, which awards a variety of prizes for technological achievements.)

After eight years of development, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, piloted by Brian Binnie, accomplished the feat, with the help of software and funding from Paul Allen. Rutan—known for building the aircraft Voyager, which traveled across the world without stopping or refueling in 1986—went on to work with Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.

6. DARPA Grand Challenge

In 2004, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency within the Department of Defense) offered a $1 million prize to the first team whose unmanned vehicle traversed 150 miles of desert terrain. Not one of 15 teams made it past the eight-mile mark. DARPA upped the ante in 2005, offering $2 million to the first team to build an autonomous vehicle that travels across 132-mile course under 10 hours.

Stanford University’s vehicle, Stanley, a Volkswagen Touareg, chugged across the arid landscape at an average speed of 19.1 mph to finish the course in six hours and 53 minutes. Four other vehicles crossed the finish line, but many could not navigate the course within the 10-hour time limit.

In 2007, DARPA sponsored the Urban Challenge, in which autonomous vehicles had to travel a 55-mile urban course and heed all traffic laws. Of the six teams that finished the course, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tartan Racing team won. Their Chevy Tahoe, Boss, averaged about 14 mph and arrived at the finish line 20 minutes before the second place team. Boss interacted with the other robots in the course, pausing at a four-way stop sign, and adhering to California state traffic laws. Experts consider these robots smarter because they mingled with one another—without wrecking.

7. Society for the Encouragement of Industry

During the Napoleonic Wars, the general couldn’t wage war throughout the summer and spring because his food stores would go bad—negatively impacting his soldiers’ performance. So Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs to the inventor who discovered a way to preserve food.

In 1809 1795, Nicolas Appert, a chef, began experimenting with preservation. He believed that food should be stored in glass bottles, much like wine. After about 14 years of experimentation, he presented the government with the Appert method—placing food in bottles, corking and sealing the opening with wax, then boiling the bottles in water. This method extended the freshness of perishable items. Napoleon was so pleased with this method, he personally awarded Appert the 12,000 francs. Years later, tin cans and Pasteurization improved the method to that of modern canning.

8. MPrize

Mice don't live very long. The Methuselah Foundation, which supports extending human life in a healthy way, started the MPrize in 2003 to inspire researchers to extend the lives of mice—and eventually develop therapies that also work on humans.

The foundation awards two prizes to researchers—one for longevity and one for rejuvenation. David Sharp won a Special MPrize for Lifespan Achievement for his work on the first pharmaceutical intervention for elderly mice. Andrezej Bartke won an MPrize for Longevity for his growth hormone receptor gene knockout mouse. Steven Spindler used calorie restriction to halt the process of aging, which earned him an MPrize for rejuvenation. His mice lived an average of 1356 days with a diet that increased lifespan and reduced age-related diseases and cancers. The fountain of youth may be a low calorie diet.

9. Deutsch-Archdeacon Grand Prix de Aviation

Raymond Orteig was not the first Frenchman to support aviation by funding a prize. In 1904, Ernest Archdeacon and Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe pooled 50,000 francs to award to the first pilot who flew a one-kilometer circular course. Henri Farman, a former bicycle and auto racer, abandoned street races after an injury and turned to flying. He modified airplanes after receiving them from manufacturers. In 1907, he won the Archdeacon Cup (same Archdeacon) for flying 150 meters in one minute, 14 seconds—the first flight exceeding a minute in a non-Wright Brothers plane. In 1908, he completed the closed circular course of one kilometer in one minute, winning the 50,000 francs. His Henri Farman III plane became the most popular European biplane in use prior to the Great War.

10. The Google Lunar X Prize

Peter Diamandis, founder of the Ansari X Prize and the X Foundation, decided that one space-related prize wasn’t enough. He started the Google Lunar X Prize in 2007, encouraging privately funded companies to land on the moon before a government agency.

To do this, the X Prize Foundation, Google, and other partners offer a prize of about $30 million (the total prize money depends on whether the teams take certain incentives or not). The teams must build a rover and a lander and launch them prior to 2015. Once the lander rests on the moon’s surface, the rover must traverse 500 meters, send high quality images and video to Earth. Some teams plan on visiting historical sites on the moon for additional money. (Yes, there are historic sites on the moon; for example, the Apollo landing sites and the Sea of Tranquility.)

Each team must obtain 90 percent of its funding from private sources. One team, Astrobotic, announced it secured a launch with Elon Musk’s SpaceX on a Falcon 9 rocket in December 2013. If the team takes off on its scheduled date and everything goes smoothly, it will win the prize. No other teams have announced launch dates.

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June 27, 2011 - 7:50am
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