Age of Invention: Myth-busting Innovation Prizes
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Yesterday I had a piece in Works in Progress magazine, on the best ways to design modern innovation prizes — and why many of them fail.
I examined the famous “Longitude Prize” of 1714, and in the process busted some major myths about it. Almost every element of the popular story is wrong — something that experts on the topic like Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt have been going on about for years. The popular story’s hero, John Harrison, often portrayed as an inventor shunned by a haughty scientific establishment, actually received massive amounts of funding from the committee for awarding the prize. The story’s villain, the Astronomer Royal Neville Maskelyne, was no villain at all. And there’s very little evidence that the prize actually incentivised people to innovate. The Board of Longitude, for that matter, ended up more like a grant-giving agency — a kind of navigation-themed DARPA — than just a committee of prize judges.
You can read the full piece here.
So what is the rest of this week’s newsletter about? Well, I’d like to take the chance to bust even more myths about innovation prizes!
Let’s start with a fairly small one, to do with longitude, that I’d missed. Take the narrative about the 1707 naval disaster off the Isles of Scilly, which led to the demise of the wonderfully-named admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. The disaster is usually cited as having been the direct cause of the institution of the 1714 reward, and, of course, gives most Youtubers, bloggers, and TV presenters discussing longitude the opportunity to say the name “Sir Cloudesley Shovell”. Who wouldn’t?
I had already been sceptical of the disaster’s relevance to Parliament’s creation of the longitude reward, because of the seven-year delay. I had then noticed, when researching for the piece, that the disaster was hardly mentioned at all by those lobbying for the reward, by those consulted on it, or by the MPs who voted on it. It seemed to be irrelevant as a cause, so I repurposed that part of the popular story to simply use as a general example of a naval disaster caused by not knowing one’s position at sea.
But even my downgrading of its relevance, it turns out, may have been over-generous. Yesterday, after I published my piece, Richard Dunn pointed out to me that not only was the 1707 disaster irrelevant as a cause of the 1714 reward, but that the disaster itself may not have had very much to do with a specific failure to find longitude. It certainly wasn’t singled out as a cause at the time.
As for the actual causes, they were probably compass error, inconsistent charts, and even uncertainty over the fleet’s latitude, not just its longitude. And to the extent that not knowing the fleet’s longitude appears to have been a major part of the problem, it was also related to failures to accurately calculate longitude on land — something that could already be done using existing techniques. The navigational text-books, for example, disagreed on the position of Cape Spartel, in Morocco, from which the fleet departed and took its bearings. As the maritime historian William E. May put it, when he looked into the detail of the fleet’s route and navigational measurements, “the errors in longitudes in the accepted text-books must have introduced a danger just as great as any errors in reckoning the longitude.”
So much for a small myth. Now for a much bigger one.
In response to my post, someone mentioned an innovation prize of 12,000 francs, apparently instituted by Napoleon for an improved method of preserving food. As the story goes, Napoleon desperately wanted a method that would transform his armies’ supplies.
Google this prize, and you will find hundreds of results — often from very reputable sources. But you’ll start to notice something odd: nobody seems to agree on when the prize was actually instituted, or even when it was won. Many sources bandy about dates like 1795, 1801, 1806, 1809, 1810, 1811, 1816, or even 1824. Yet they all mention the person who won it — Nicolas Appert, the inventor of canned food (well, sterilised and glass-bottled food, but in Britain the bottles were very quickly replaced by tin cans).
So what’s happening here? Well, as far as I can tell, there was actually no such innovation prize at all.
Appert was certainly an inventor working on food preservation techniques. Although it’s not clear what really inspired his experiments, his background was in food. His parents had run a large hostelry in Chalons en Champagne, where he also worked. He had then run a brewery, and at one point was head cook for the count-palatine of Zweibrücken. By the time of his experiments, which had begun by 1790, he ran a confectionary and grocery shop in central Paris — and was thus in the right place at the right time to take part in the French Revolution, becoming involved with the revolutionary military. He apparently even assisted in the gaoling and execution of Louis XVI.
Appert only narrowly avoided being guillotined himself, when the revolution turned even more extreme and he suddenly seemed like a moderate. And then, c.1795, soon after his release, he began manufacturing and selling his sterilised, bottled foodstuffs. This, as far as I can tell, is the origin of the 1795 date: it’s when he first scaled-up and began marketing a technique that he had already been working on for some time. In 1803 his technique was getting positive reviews from French naval and maritime officials, and in 1806 he presented his bottled foods at the national exhibition of industry — so far with no reward.
Then, in 1809, he wrote to the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale (SEIN)— essentially, the French government-created copy of England’s Society of Arts (by the way, if you’re a new reader, the English Society of Arts is the subject of my first book). Given the SEIN was founded in 1801, that might be the source of that date in the befuddled literature on the “prize”, though I can’t say for certain. In any case, the SEIN investigated his process and recommended it, with Appert then relying on their recommendation when he petitioned the government for a reward. Getting expert pre-approval was, essentially, the way that obtaining all patents and other government rewards worked in France (unlike in Britain, where by the eighteenth century the state had mostly given up on trying to get experts to pre-approve patents, and increasingly left it to the market to see if they succeeded or failed, as well as to the courts to settle any priority disputes).
The French government’s response was that the invention was worthy, and that he would receive a reward of 12,000 francs — in exchange for which he would publish a detailed explanation of his method. The government essentially decided to pay to spread his method to the world, to aid in its adoption. Thousands of copies of Appert’s write-up were printed, in successive editions, and it was very quickly translated into German, Swedish, and English too.
So it wasn’t an innovation prize at all, at least not in the sense of inducing innovation. It was, instead, an ex-post award, only granted well after the invention had already been developed, and only in response to the inventor’s petitions. Somehow, at some point — the earliest sign of confusion that I could find was from 1869 — someone mistook the reward for an up-front prize, and then later inferred from its results and timing that the government must have had some kind of military reason behind offering a prize. Eventually, pretty much everyone else ended up citing the citations of that original mistake — especially as the Appert story seemed to provide such a neat, clear-cut case of innovation prizes working. It was seemingly “too good to check”.
In my experience, Appert-like myths are everywhere, and especially in the history of invention. My alarm bells start ringing with any very straightforward-seeming, plausible-sounding story to explain why an invention occurred. Like the idea of Gutenberg’s printing press being inspired by wine presses or coin-stamping, James Watt working on steam engines because he saw a kettle boil, or James Hargreaves inventing the spinning jenny by seeing a spinning wheel overturned on the floor. They all sound plausible — just-so stories always do — but we should resist their siren pull.
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