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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Longitude - Early X-Prize

  An academic article about the Longitude Prize, won by John Harrison and one of the earlier examples of how such prizes are so much more effective than normal government grant funding. Being academic it goes it has to explain how dreadful it was that the prize was used to discover longitude rather than for stopping illness at sea or inventing mechanically powered (steam) ships. Really.As a criticism of prizes this seems to be in line with "we shouldn't go into space/sail the Atlantic till all problems on Earth/Europe have been solved.

   However what is interesting is that the initial push for the prize came, at least partly, not from government being altruistic but from it trying to cover their collective arses over a monumental fuck up by somebody politically connected.
in 1707, a fleet of British naval vessels under the command of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell sailed headlong into the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall. Having the bodies of hundreds of British seamen, including members of some of the nation’s leading families, wash up on homeland beaches was simply unacceptable. People demanded that an effort be made to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.
Shovell and his fleet had sailed from Gibraltar bound for England on or about October 10, 1707. They suffered stormy weather nearly continuously for the next 10 days. They were unable to make reliable astronomic observations and were forced to navigate by dead reckoning,.....Admiral Shovell’s decision to try to make port immediately rather than wait for a more reliable determination of his position was simply foolhardy and cost 2,000 lives, including his own.
Ignoring the fact that the error in latitude in nautical miles had been twice that of the error in longitude, the Admiralty chose not to blame the disaster on the mistake of a highly respected member of the nobility. Instead, it focused on the notoriously difficult problem of accurately determining longitude at sea. In 1714 the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act, which established the Commission for the Discovery of Longitude at Sea, more commonly referred to as the Board of Longitude. The Act provided three prizes based on the accuracy of longitude measurement: £20,000 (equal to more than $3 million today) to anyone who could find a way to determine longitude at sea with an accuracy of one-half degree, £15,000 for two-thirds degree and £10,000 for one degree.
But, even if the politicls then weren't much more concerned about the common good than now, it worked. I wouldn't argue that it wouldn't also have been a good thing to have offered X-Prizes for improving longevity or producing a better method of transport then - as indeed it still would.

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"not to blame the disaster on the mistake of a highly respected member of the nobility": since he was only a "Sir" he wasn't a member of the nobility.
2,000 people dead? Talk about a bloody awful decision.
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