10 Technology Prizes That Propelled Us Forward

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.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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