During the Age of Discovery in Europe, innovations in navigation technology were of great importance in conquering the seas. In particular, a method for accurately determining thelongitude of a ship’s location was needed. Sea-faring empires created Longitude Prizes to attractinventors. In 1714 the British Parliament held a tournament and offered a grand prize of £20,000(roughly £6 million in today’s term) to the inventor who arrived at the best solution. Over the next decades, two competing concepts emerged as most promising. In one camp,intellectual giants such as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz supported the lunar distancemethod; in the other, inventors like Larcum Kendall and John Harrison chased after marinechronometers. The lunar distance method required only simple measurement tools but involvedcomplex calculations. The marine chronometer, while easy to read, was initially expensive withthe cost equaling one third of a ship’s. Subsequent design breakthroughs made the marinechronometer more affordable and accurate, thus winning the hearts of ship captains. TheLongitude Prize not just led to the invention of a piece of sophisticated equipment, it essentiallygave the British Empire a competitive advantage in dominating the seas.
The Longitude Prize is a classic example of a
tournament for ideas
—a contest designedto produce important innovations. Typically, these tournaments are proposed either bygovernments or non-profit foundations, such as the X Prize Foundation, and for grandinnovations like space travel. But innovation need not be grand to be important and contests need3