Three hundred years ago, the British Parliament established the Longitude prize; one of the most important technology competitions in history. Longitude Prize 2014 hopes to duplicate that feat with a new competition offering £10 million (US$16.8 million) in prize money aimed at solving one of today’s great technological challenges, with the British public voting for which issue the prize will be given to.

The Longitude Act 1714 wasn't meant to merely boost innovation, but was intended as a way to solve a problem of real national importance. The problem of calculating the longitude of a ship at sea was one of history’s famously “unsolvable” problems. In fact, one of the engravings in Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress series of paintings shows a madman scrawling an answer on the walls of Bedlam, which shows how unsolvable it was thought to be. However, the problem was vital both sailors and the nation if ships were to arrive safely and whole land masses weren’t to be discovered only to be lost again.

Hogarth's engraving showing a Bedlam inmate solving the longitude problem (Image: Wikipedia)

Figuring out latitude is easy enough to do. Measure the angle of the North Star or the Celestial South Pole against the horizon and you’ve got a fairly accurate measurement. Longitude is also easy. Calculate the difference in time between local noon and noon at Greenwich, convert the time into degrees, and there you are.

Unfortunately, that means having a clock aboard ship that’s synchronized with one back in Greenwich. That’s a bit tricky because in 1714 the only clocks accurate enough for such a task relied on pendulums, but using a pendulum clock on a ship is about as successful as making a souffle with a jackhammer.

With this in mind, Parliament asked for a new clock or something that does the same job. Many different ideas were tried, such as substituting the Moon or, the moons of Jupiter as sort of clocks in the sky, and even stabbing a magic powder with a knife in Greenwich, so a dog aboard ship would howl at exactly the right time. Ultimately, it was an improved clock that won the day.

The Harrison's chronograph H5 (Image: Racklever/Wikipedia)

The end result of all this was a new timepiece with a new escapement to replace the pendulum. It was invented by watchmaker and carpenter John Harrison and would very soon evolve into the modern chronometer – and lead to a decades-long dispute with the inventor over the prize money. Despite this bickering, one was carried by Captain Cook on two of his voyages of discovery.

Announced last year by Prime Minister David Cameron, Longitude Prize 2014 commemorates the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act, and was developed by the innovation agency Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board. A committee led by Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees identified six major issues, which the public will vote on. These challenge areas are:

  • Flight – Design an aircraft that can fly from London to Edinburgh at about the same speed as conventional airplanes, but with zero emissions.
  • Food – Create a new “food innovation” for feeding the hungry of the world in a way that’s cheap, nutritious, and sustainable.
  • Antibiotics – Come up with a test for doctors to identify bacterial infections and prescribe the correct antibiotics that’s cheap, fast, and accurate.
  • Paralysis – Provide a way to restore at least partial mobility to people suffering from partial or total paralysis.
  • Water – Invent a cheap and sustainable form of water desalination.
  • Dementia – Create “intelligent, affordable integrated technologies” that allow dementia patients to live independent lives.

The prize will be highlighted on a special broadcast on May 22 of the 50th anniversary of the BBC's Horizon science program, after which the public will be invited to cast their votes. The results of the vote will be announced in July and final winner of the challenge will receive the £10 million prize and five years to complete the project.

"Three hundred years ago the Longitude Act stimulated invention and drew out hidden talent,” says Rees. “But today there are many areas where progress is still needed. That's why we've decided that the theme of Longitude Prize 2014 should be selected in response to a public vote. We can all play a part, so I encourage people to tell us what their number one challenge is."

Sources: Longitude Prize 2014, Nesta via BBC