Prizes With an Eye Toward the Future

By:  TINA ROSENBERG

Last week, David Bornstein wrote about how the Obama administration is using prize competitions to solve some of the problems government faces.   Agencies as different as the Department of Labor and NASA are recruiting ideas from the public by offering prizes for solving challenges.

While solutions these prizes generate are often innovative, the practice of offering them is anything but new. In 1714, the British government offered a prize of £20,000 to the person who found a way to accurately determine a ship's longitude.   As described in the book "Longitude," the Yorkshire carpenter and clockmaker John Harrison won the prize after decades of work by inventing a clock that worked at sea.    Harrison's solution revolutionized the maritime world.

Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig prize for making the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris.   Canned goods, margarine, the commercial hydraulic turbine, machines to saw marble, fire extinguishers and thousands of other products were invented in response to prize challenges.

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