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Sunday, June 08, 2008

HISTORIC X-PRIZES


I have regularly advocated X-Prizes as a method of encouraging scientific, particularly space development. An X-prize is a substantial financial prize given for a specific technological achievement.

Although it is best known for the $10 million prize the Burt Rutan won for the first private flight into space there are historical antecedents. The best know are the ones that Lindberg got for the first solo crossing of the Atlantic, the $25,000 Orteig Prize and the prize the British government offered (& tried to welch on) for a way of measuring longitude won by John Harrison.

In a newspaper letter I tried to mention Archimedes as the winner of the earliest known such prize when his king, Hiero of Syracuse, offered a prize for a way of measuring the purity of gold. Archimedes realised he could measure its volume & therefore its weight by volume & immediately, allegedly, jumped from his bath shouting Eureka & rushed off to tell everybody (he didn't hide his algorithms or anything else thus establishing himself in the true scientific tradition). The paper edited that bit out, presumably not expecting the readers to care about classical references.

Now I have found another:

Billiards were big business in the 1800s. Just about every affluent home had a billiard table and it was one of the most common forms of indoor recreation. Most billiard balls were made of ivory. Throughout the later years of the century manufacturers in both Europe and America fretted over the possibility that the elephant might become extinct. Possibly because the Civil War was restricting imports, in 1863 a New York billiard equipment distributor announced a 10,000$ prize for an artificial ivory.

Hyatt took up the challenge. While his first attempts at molding billiard balls from wood pulp and gum shellac failed, they did give him experience forming objects under a combination of heat and pressure. This was the critical component, earlier inventors used heat to help work the solvents into the pyroxylin and then allowed them to evaporate. Hyatt and his fellow printer James Brown applied heat and pressure to their mixture of camphor gum and pyroxylin. It resulted in a durable, though sometimes flammable material.....

The celluloid patent was issued to Hyatt and his brother Isaiah who coined the name celluloid
So that the plastics industry set up.

The more it gets looked at the more effective putting up such a prize as a way of stimulating innovation becomes. If anybody knows of any others, or perhaps of prizes which didn't produce results please let me know. I thought of all those royalty who offered money (well gold) to alchemists if they could only produce gold but these seem to be more like conventional scientific grants - if you have the credentials you get the money in advance & it is for looking not for finding.

Just as the Victorians thought they were about to hit peak oil in the 1850s due to lack of whales they also thought they had hit peak billiard ball material. In both cases it was solved by technology - someting today's "peak" alarmists seem never to have thought of.

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