Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Open Innovation in the Eighteenth Century: The Longitude Problem: The Longitude Prize, Offered in 1714, Remains a Vivid, Relevant Model for Modern Prize-Based Innovation Efforts

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Open Innovation in the Eighteenth Century: The Longitude Problem: The Longitude Prize, Offered in 1714, Remains a Vivid, Relevant Model for Modern Prize-Based Innovation Efforts

Article excerpt

On the night of October 22, 1707, a fleet of Royal Navy warships was homeward bound in wind and rain. Far off course, they struck the rocks of the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall, losing four ships and 2,000 men in one of history's greatest naval disasters. This tragedy was to spark the first great open innovation challenge--one that still has powerful lessons for innovation in the twenty-first century.

The fundamental problem for the hapless commander of the fleet, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, and for Britain, which depended on mastery of the seas for security and trade, was that it was very difficult to know the longitude of a ship at sea. Latitude (distance north or south) was easily found by the angle of the North Star or noonday sun over the horizon. Determining one's longitude--east-west position relative to an arbitrary zero point--was far more difficult. The ancient Greeks knew that the spherical earth made a full rotation per day, and therefore finding longitude was equivalent to knowing simultaneously the local time and the time at the reference point. Local time was easy to find by sun sighting; the problem hinged on knowing the time elsewhere. Accuracy mattered: at the equator, the speed of the earth's rotation is about 1,040 miles per hour or 17 miles per minute; at the latitude of London, it is 11 miles per minute. Even if the required sun sighting were perfect, a timepiece in error by a minute would produce this much error in position. Ali of this was well understood at the time of the disaster, and there had been serious attacks on the problem going back to Galileo. In Britain, King Charles II had founded the Royal Observatory in 1675 for the explicit purpose of addressing the longitude problem, but there had been no useful results nearly 40 years later. Many considered the accurate determination of longitude on a moving ship to be impossible.

But the Scilly Isles disaster could not be ignored, and so Parliament took a new approach. The Longitude Act of 1714, enacted in the name of Queen Anne on behalf of the Admiralty, offered a prize of 20,000 [pounds sterling] to whoever could produce a practicable method of determining longitude to within 30 miles, to be proven on a voyage from Britain to the West Indies. The Act established a Board of Longitude to manage submissions, decide upon the prize winner, and, if necessary, grant additional money to support an inventor's progress.

The Act attracted the attention of John Harrison, a 21-year-old carpenter and clockmaker from Yorkshire who, with his father, had been making wooden pendulum clocks. Realizing that pendulums were infeasible on a rolling ship, he developed a system of balanced springs as the oscillating heart of his timepieces. In 1736, he presented the Board with his brass and steel H1 model, which might have sufficed to win the prize. However, Harrison was a perfectionist, and given the Board's strong interest in his approach, he asked only for funds to continue improving his invention. Two 500 [pounds sterling] grants, two models, and 23 years later, Harrison produced the remarkable H4, the first true marine chronometer. The H4, which resembled a large pocket watch, incorporated the newest technologies and several Harrison inventions: hardened steel springs, an automatic rewinder, diamond pivots, and a bimetallic temperature compensator. It was more than accurate enough to win the prize. As Dava Sobel (1995) vividly relates, Harrison's difficulties were only beginning. Actually receiving the prize took years of delay, jealousy, and obstruction, but finally, with personal support from the King, Harrison was vindicated and over his lifetime received 23,065 [pounds sterling] from Parliament. He lived long enough to hear Captain Cook sing his invention's praises after using it to map the South Pacific. (For more on the Longitude Act and John Harrison's invention of the marine chronometer, see "Resources," p. 41 .)

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The Longitude Act resulted in the invention of the marine chronometer, which solved the problem the Act sought to address. …

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