How to really solve the great challenges of our time

Longitude by Dava Sobel

What if the great problems of our day, problems that cost the lives of thousands could be solved relatively quickly and cheaply?

What is a technique existed that could spur on these solutions?

And, what if the side effects of the innovation was the creation of new industry, prosperity and lower prices.

Look to the Past

Today, we use subsidies. Their track record of delivering success is absyml. It creates an army of officials to administer schemes only a few people ever use and hardly ever reach their stated intention.

Dava Sobel’s book showed me there is another way. If we look to the past, there is a simpler and more effective way to help unlock the great solutions to enormous challenges.

There have always been men and women who are after fame and fortune and all they need is the opportunity.

The Lessons from John Harrison

The life of a relatively unknown English clockmaker provides the answers.

The British Parliament in 1714 set up a prize in the Longitude Act. This was “An Act for Providing a Public Reward for such Persons or Persons as shall discover the Longitude at Sea”.

On 20 July 1714 the British Parliament, then usually very careful with taxpayers money, was prepared to give away tens of millions of pounds, in today’s money, if someone could solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea.

The British Parliament set up a prize that rewarded not only the first prize, but also for the second and third prize by:

  • £20,000 if accurate to 30 miles
  • £15,000 if accurate to 40 miles
  • £10,000 to the discoverer of a method which determined the longitude to 60 geographical miles

They set some conditions down, including:

  • The method had to be proved to be “practicable; and
  • Useful at sea” on a voyage to the West Indies.

Whether the terms had been met was to be administered by:

  • Commissioners—later to be called the Board of Longitude.
  • The Astronomer Royal was ex officio a member of the board.

The provisions were to apply to all who qualified, regardless of nationality. No Little Englander values were tolerated when taking to the greatest challenges of the age.

£20,000 is the equivalent of a few £ million today. And, as income tax was a lot lower, that really was a lot of money.

Why Was It Needed

The reason that the British Parliament set aside so much money was simple. Thousands of people a year died at sea. Boats got off course and either died at the sea or crashed on rocks and all because they did not have any idea where they were in the sea.


An English clockmaker John Harrison devoted his life to this quest. A mix of fame and fortune took an innovative clock maker away from his business to create a watch for seafarers to measure where they were at sea.

The reward may be a small fortune, but those going in for the prize knew they handed over the ownership over.

Don’t Trust The Establishment

Even though John Harrison solved the problem, the Establishment did everything in their powers to stop him.

They passed a new Longitude Acts to stop him winning, and they did so not once but twice.

The Board was full of his enemies who sent his enemies to determine if his innovations worked.

He never did win the Prize. It was never given. The Board dissolved in 1828.

In the end of the day Harrison received £8750 directly fro, the British Parliament. In addition to the advances he had received he nearly got £20,000.

He only got it after his son lobbied the British Parliament and the King. John Harrison published a pamphlet, at his expense, to tell the story about what had happened.

John Harrison revolutionized seafaring. Britannia ruling the waves was due in large part due to a humble perfectionist. He saved the lives but seafarers, but hardly anyone new about him. His invention, the chronometer, does not bare his name.

Some individuals have worked out this is the right way to go. The X Prize is a great example spurning on innovation by individuals. Space travel has been revolutionized by them.


Imagine if Governments copies the British Parliament of 1714.

£10 million tax free for the person who invents clean and cheap energy perhaps seems a pittance compared to the billions burnt in subsidies every year. Copy the idea and offer 2nd and 3rd Prizes as well and you’ll unlock on the desire for fame and fortune amongst billions of people.

Now an army of officials may have to go and do something else other than administering subsidies. Companies dependent on subsidies to exist would go broke.

But, imagine the amazing things that we could solve!