Using Prizes to Foster Innovation

Steve Lohr’s “Unboxed” column in today’s New York Times provides several examples of how prize competitions have spurred innovation–starting with Britain’s 1714 prize of 20,000 pounds (nearly $4.5 million today) to anyone who could figure out how to determine  a ship’s longitude (see the fascinating book Longitude for the full story).

If you like Lohr’s article and you’d like to learn more, I recommend The McKinsey Prize Report (I was interviewed for the report), published in 2010. It provides good advice about how and when prize competitions work and when they don’t, and a comprehensive list of recent prize competitions designed to foster innovation.

Books About Inventions

This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal published William Rosen’s recommendations of the five best books about inventions. These are great; I’ve added a few of my own recommendations at the end of his list.

1. Longitude. By Dava Sobel. The story of the first clock, which at the time was called a “chronometer.” This was a major step forward in ocean travel. Ship captains could tell what latitude they were at (how far north or south) by checking the angle between the horizon and the North Star, but they couldn’t tell which longitude they were at (how far east or west) until they ran into land. The chronometer allowed them to always know their longitude, and combining that with their latitude, they always knew their exact location.

2. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. By Richard Rhodes. Tells the story of the familiar cast of geniuses, including Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, but also the lesser known engineers who made it happen.

3. To Conquer the Air. By James Tobin. Tells the story of flight from Wilbur and Orville Wright’s perspective.

To my mind, Tobin’s book over-exaggerates the Wrights. For a counter-narrative, I recommend:

Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtis and the Race to Invent the Airplane. By Seth Shulman.

4. The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. By John McPhee. The title refers to a new kind of helium-filled balloon-slash-airplane called the Aereon 26. The project ultimately fails.

5. The Soul of a New Machine. By Tracy Kidder. 1981. The story of a group of computer engineers, working in the late 1970s, around the clock to develop a newer, more powerful minicomputer. I read this book back in the early 1980s when I was designing videogames, which was a nerdy computer programming task back in the day, and I loved the book.

To this list, I’d add:

The Victorian Internet. By Tom Standage. A fascinating story of how the telegraph was invented, and how it transformed society, perhaps even more dramatically than the Internet has transformed our own.