Longitude Prize 2014: Public to pick one of 'the six greatest challenges facing humanity' for £10m bounty

 

A £10m bounty for amateur and professional scientists to solve one of the ‘six greatest challenges facing humanity’ has been announced.

The Longitude Prize, funded by the charity Nesta and government-run Technology Strategy Board, hopes to replicate both the enterprising spirit (and scientific successes) of the 1714 Longitude Act that encouraged British scientists to solve a century-old navigational conundrum.

From 22 May until 25 June the public will be able to vote on six challenges chosen by the modern-day Longitude Committee and decide which is deserving of the prize money. Each of the problems has a global impact, and a solution to any - if a single solution exists - would be beneficial to the world.

Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and a member of the committee that chose the challenges, said he hopes that the prize will spark public curiosity and stimulate innovation, pointing to similar competitions set up by Darpa and Google that revitalized ‘stuck’ markets.

Geoff Mulgan, the chief executive of Nesta, said “If you want to solve a scientific problem, one method is to go to top universities and top scientists and ask them to solve it. But over the years, and this was something pioneered by the Longitude Prize in the 18th Century, it's often better to open it up to anyone to come up with a solution.”

The prize will be open to international entries although submissions will need to demonstrate that their solution would deliver "direct economic benefit" to the UK in the form of tax revenues or job creation."

The original Longitude Prize was created 300 years ago to solve one of the greatest problems facing Britain at the time: how to determine a ship’s longitude, or the distance it has travelled east or west from its starting destinatoin.

Sailors’ inability to determine their longitude not only led to meandering voyages but also to shipwrecks. In 1707 more than 1,400 sailors and four large British ships were lost off the Isles of Scilly because of navigators’ inability to calculate their positions accurately.

At the time it was quite easy to determine a vessel’s latitude (its position north to south) using the North Star or the Sun as a reference point, but working out longitude had been a problem for hundreds of years - so much so that it stumped great scientific minds from Galileo Galilei to Sir Isaac Newton.

It was known that for every 15 degrees a ship travelled eastward, the local time would move forward one hour. Therefore, sailors understood that if they had a reliable time source at the point at which they set sail, they could calculate how far they’d travelled by comparing this with their current time (worked out by calculating noon as the point at which they Sun was highest in the sky).

The Age of Sail: from the 16th to the 19th-century, naval warfare and international trade were dominated by sailing ships.

However, creating a clock that kept time reliably was thought to be impossible, with the motion of the ships, the humidity and the temperature changes at sea disrupting the mechanisms of mechanical timepiece and playing havoc with pendulums - the most accurate clocks of the day.

In 1714 the government created the Longitude Board and a £20,000 prize (roughly £2.6 million in today’s money) to anyone who could come up with a solution, eventually awarding the money (or most of it at any rate) to a Yorkshire clockmaker named John Harrison.

Harrison was known as a tinkerer and created a series of watches that would keep accurate time at sea. It was his fourth attempt (known as ‘H4’) that eventually proved to be reliable enough to survive the long journeys, with Harrison's breakthrough being to set the mechanics to run so quickly (the H4 ‘beat’ five times a second) that they could not be unbalanced even by a storm in the Pacific.

Harrison's Chronometer H5, from the Collection of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers

It’s difficult to understand just what a feat of engineering Harrison’s clocks were. His first design took six years to manufacture and the technology was so complex that these time pieces – able to be held in the hand – initially accounted for as much as 30 per cent of a ship’s total costs.

The 21st century’s Longitude Prize will be hoping to solve problems that seem just as intractable today as the longitude conundrum did in the 18th century, and opefully, in another 300 years’ time, the solutions this new prize elicits will seem as obvious and quaint as Harrison's watches today.

Click here to find out more about the prize

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Sport
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
football
Extras
indybest
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on