Wanted: Progressive 18th Century Thinking

The Yanks are much better than the Brits at understanding that governments can’t do much that is useful.

Which is why Qualcomm’s offer of a $10 million prize for anyone who invents a Tricorder – the self-diagnostic tool used in Star Trek – is so much a better way of stimulating innovation than the usual UK government innovation initiatives.

The current government says it’s very keen on innovation. But its ways of promoting innovation are to allocate money, appoint experts, put money up for a building and staff it with bureaucrats, establish committees, fund VCs, seed Science Parks etc.  


It wasn’t always like this. Back in 1714 the British government offered £20,000 to anyone who could invent a way of establishing longitude after six weeks at sea.


Out of the blue came a poorly educated Yorkshire clock-maker, John Harrison, who delivered the invention.


Innovation comes from someone’s brain – you can’t predict whose brain – so it’s better to put the money up for grabs by whoever can do the bizzo.


So c’mon you government guys – let’s see some progressive 18th century thinking here and some substantial prizes for new inventions.


A couple which come to mind are a carbon-based IC and a roll-up display.

₤20 million apiece should do the trick.



  1. It would be a fine thing, I agree, Geoff, but, in the present impoverished state of the media we don’t have the largesse to tempt the nutters out of the woodwork.

  2. Don’t stand there! Doo eet!
    Headline: “EW encourages the nutters to exit the woodwork for the good of society” ?

  3. No one knows, Geoff, that’s the exciting thing.

  4. So low and behold EW set up a special site that took in the ideas for a medical tricorder. Comment (feedback) honed these ideas into something that could be made…. then the trouble started! OR society took a new turn for the good…
    Do we set up the dominos for, the first person to latch on to where they are all leading, pushing them over? Extreamly altruistic; can it be done at our present stage of evolution?

  5. I think you’re right, Crazy Man, ‘normal channels’ tend to produce normal results. Extraordinary results require extraordinary measures.

  6. I thinck that the same companies that you work for should hold these competitions for specific problems relating with the company of course.

  7. ahh! MEDICAL tricorder… didn’t that have that wirring thingy held over patien which the standard tricorder interfaced with?

  8. “At presicely 15.00 EST on August 17th 2013 Twitter became self aware”…..
    Mind you I think facebook already has!!!

  9. “As Gordon Moore once wisely observed, Bitter, if we can’t figure out how to keep ahead of computers we deserve to get taken over by them.”
    Haven’t we already beaten computers into submission? At least 95% of users have managed to reduce them to a Twitter/Facebook/blah-blah machine 🙂

  10. The classic catch of the $10M is that you have to demonstraight a working model before you get the money. I see no problem in creating such a beast, but what do I live on in the meantime? Then, when do I stop designing it; when have I created what everyone wants (a right old camel)?
    The Longditude problem was fairly well defined, but exactly what medical conditions, when measured, will be the definition leading to a cure? Exactly what should a tricorder tell me?
    Notice that it went with a device that implemented a cure…. which I felt made up for the pain of taking the results too seriously…. and would relieve me of the responsibility of interpreting the answers!
    What about a competition to define what it should do for us first? We know what is already done by most medics, but would someone in the know please say what they would really like to see!

  11. We already got Techno-Charity. Maybe we can try out Techno-Terrorism? It’s only a matter of time.
    Scott Adams, again, says it best.

  12. Well if you’ve got a name like Cloudesley what do you expect?

  13. From Another Dave: I can’t wait to see Ed get what’s coming to him. Although I was hoping he wasn’t going to see it coming.
    Pity, it looks like dawning on him already…
    Another Dave

  14. It was a lot cheaper than sailing ships into the Scillies.

  15. Commercial prizes work quite nice indeed, like forspace commercialization (X price and such), and netflix had a nice contest where the winner got a million dollar for improving a data mining algorithm. Several papers came out of the contest and the entire field of collaborative learning benefitted from the contest. There was going to be a sequel, but it was killed due to lawyers pre-emptively fighting over a piece of the pie 🙁

  16. Well [Anonymous] he got £500 for development work in 1736, another £500 in 1741, in 1761 he got £5,000, in 1765 he got £10,000 and in 1773 (after an intervention by King George himself) he got the £8750. According to Wiki: “In total, Harrison received £23,065 for his work on chronometers. He received £4,315 in increments from the Board of Longitude for his work, £10,000 as an interim payment for H4 in 1765 and £8,750 from Parliament in 1773. This gave him a reasonable income for most of his life (equivalent to roughly £45,000 per year in 2007).” £23k was equivalent to over £3 million in today’s money.

  17. Thank you Ric218, I’m flattered

  18. I suggest they let David judge it!

  19. Bummer!
    The hanging & theft of the ring may be apochryphal.
    How disappointing.
    According to Wiki:
    “In 1773, when he was 80 years old, Harrison received a monetary award in the amount of £8,750 from Parliament for his achievements, but he never received the official award (which was never awarded to anyone).
    He was to survive for just three more years.”
    As ever, our betters are generous to a fault.

  20. Well he got the money bit by bit. It took years but, I think, in the end that he got it all. The problem was that Harrison’s solution was very expensive.

  21. It took Harrison decades to get any money out of the govermint.
    And Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cloudesley Shovell hanged the poor sod who had the temerity to mention that the fleet was sailing into danger.
    The only good thing was that the inbred upper class scrote was offed by a beachcomber who stole his gold rings.
    Just proves there really is justice in the universe.

  22. Yes that’s a good one, Stooriefit

  23. I like that definition of Innovation!
    Another one I like was given by David Lane, one of the founders of Seebyte, although I don’t know whether he was the first to say it: Invention is the process of turning money into ideas, innovation is the process of turning ideas into money.

  24. P.S. So there should also be a prize to determine the criteria for success.

  25. As Gordon Moore once wisely observed, Bitter, if we can’t figure out how to keep ahead of computers we deserve to get taken over by them.

  26. It will be interesting to see what the machines figure out and make of humankind? Will humans be obsoleted, integrated or assimilated?

  27. You’re right, Stooriefit, not much innovation comes out of the Royal Society! Once you have a self-electing body of worthies they tend to elect people who agree with them. So the whole thing becomes consensual. The whole point about innovation is that it puts a sharp object up the fundamental orifice of consensualists. ‘Scientific Establishments’ everywhere have a heavy historical burden of guilt for trying to stifle new thinking.

  28. Yes that would be a good one, Bitter. It must be getting close.

  29. Prizes – fine, but not offered by the government please! In true government style Harrison only saw a fraction of the £20k even though he solved the problem as originally posed, and his method is what we used right up until the advent of radio direction finding.
    A lot of the trouble was that the committee set up to judge entries was a bunch of worthies from the scientific establishment and they expected an astronomical method based on lunar distance to win, not a “mechanical” one. “Lunars” had a long history having been looked at by Newton, and Nevil Maskelyne was working hard on this at the time he was made Astronomer Royal, so he managed to put the mockers on Harrison getting the prize. Lunars was a very fiddly measurement and just about worked on land, but not very useful on a ship, which was the whole point.
    Governments realise they aren’t competent to award grants, which is why they have worthies do it. What they don’t realise is that in many cases they have demonstrated that they aren’t competent to put together a panel of worthies either. I can’t think of good way to get over this judgement problem – judgement of where to put a grant, or judgement as to who has won a prize.
    The only time the prize works is when the criteria for success are childishly simple (X-prize), and I would argue that most prizes simple to judge are of little social value. I’m cynical, so I think if the tricorder criteria are set so that they are simple to judge and socially useful no-one will be able to meet the criteria. If the criteria are simple enough to make it a winnable prize it will turn out to be only marginally useful in practice.
    A proper character in this whole saga is the admiral who managed to wreck his squadron on the Isles of Scilly because legend has it he refused to listen to the advice of a sailor who was a local man. It was the loss of all these ships that made the government put up the prize. He rejoiced in the moniker “Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cloudesley Shovell”.

  30. Here is another one:
    A machine that can pass the turing test.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *