Longitude Prize 2014 – A New Search

Horizon, 2001

Horizon, 2001 (Photo credit: archiveatthebbc)

Until Dava Sobel’s 1996 book, and Charles Sturridge’s wonderful dramatisation, the process of solving one of the most intractable scientific problems of the 18th century was a story unknown. Building a Better Clock was not the stuff of Boys’ Own Adventures, yet the details of how country carpenter-cum-engineering genius John Harrison produced a highly accurate marine timepiece is a worthy read. The closest Harrison had come to popular attention was in the classic Only Fools and Horses episode “Time On Our Hands” which sees Peckham’s finest discover a Harrison timepiece in their lockup. Sturridge’s 2000 production, starring Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons, cleverly wove Harrison’s story with a narrative from post-wartime Britain whereby ex-naval officer Rupert Gould re-discovered and re-built the original working clocks as part of his writing of the history of Harrison’s masterpieces and kind-of winning the Longitude Prize.

This prize was offered by Act of Parliament in 1714 with the promise of up to £20,000 to whoever could solve the problem of determining a ship’s longitude whilst at sea. In these TomTom times, it can be a tad hard to imagine the sheer scale of the problem facing sailors, particularly during the advance of Britain as a significant naval power almost a century before Trafalgar was won. Yet the Act of Queen Anne promised a prize sufficiently grand to tempt a long line of nutters, fraudsters, astronomers and innovators all eager to snaffle the prize. Harrison eventually received the bulk of the fund, albeit after a lifetime of difficult dealings with the committee responsible for awarding the money.

The Modern Prize

The UK government has seized upon the anniversary of the original prize to launch a £10million prize fund, aimed at tackling modern equivalents of its forebear. The fund will be administered by Nesta – the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – which was founded using funds from the UK National Lottery. The Longitude Prize for 2014 is open to all and invites proposals for tackling what the government sees as the burning issues of modern times.  A vote is currently open to select the area of study to be tackled and then from September, anyone can submit proposals which might see them receive an award over the next 5 years. Whilst the biggest danger is apathy, this is a bold attempt to socialise the funding of research projects and to make the application of Science and Technology inclusive across society. Similar schemes have operated elsewhere including the National Science Challenges in New Zealand. Check out the dedicated website here.