The idea of offering cash rewards for technological innovations goes back to a time long before humans took flight. In the 1700s, governments awarded prizes for inventions of military importance — a chronometer that would keep warships from getting lost at sea, or a food preservation technique suitable for the battlefield.
But the concept had its heyday in the early 1900s, when aviation was just getting its start. Well-heeled enthusiasts and newspaper publishers offered thousands of dollars for “firsts” ranging from a short hop in an airplane to trans-Atlantic odysseys.
Today’s $10 million X Prize for private-sector spaceflight is a direct descendant of the $25,000 Orteig Prize, which was won by trans-Atlantic solo aviator Charles Lindbergh. Even the federal government has gotten into the prize business: In 1999, a study by the National Academy of Engineering recommended that Congress encourage more experimentation with federal prize contests — leading to the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous robotic vehicles as well as NASA’s Centennial Challenges for space-related technologies.
Here are some of history’s better-known inducement prizes.