It wasn’t that difficult to know your latitude (how far north or south you were) based on the sun’s position at noon. But it was very difficult to know your longitude (how far east or west you were). Mathematically it could be determined by knowing the time where you were, and the time at some other known point. Knowing the time at some other point, say Greenwich, while on a long sailing trip turned out to be very difficult on 17 century technology – a pendulum clock. Governments offered prizes to solve this problem, but for decades it remained unsolved despite the work of scientist and sailors and “finding the longitude” became slang for a foolish pursuit. Until John Harrison, a rather humble clockmaker, created a “marine timekeeper”, a version of which was taken on Cook’s three year voyage around the world. Harrison’s invention made maritime travel much safer, and he did eventually claim the Longitude Prize offered by the British government.
This year, 300 years after the first one, there is a new “Longitude Prize“, this time of £10m. The problem to be solved will be chosen by public vote starting tonight from these six important challenges.
- Flight – How can we fly without damaging the environment?
- Food – How can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?
- Antibiotics – How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
- Paralysis – How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
- Water – How can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water?
- Dementia – How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
The voting will be open for a month and is launched tonight on BBC’s Horizon for those who have access to BBC TV.
The first Longitude Prize was open for anyone to enter, and did not have a deadline, the committee were able to give partial reward to promising research. This years prize launch acknowledges that there may not be a winner for “several years”. John Harrison was awarded the Longitude Prize in 1773, 59 years after it was launched and 38 years after he built his first marine timekeeper.
I hope those working on the projects are patient.
It’s a fantastic initiative, with support of the UK government, Nesta – an innovation charity, and the BBC. It’s an open response to building innovation that the country needs.
All the project themes are inspiring and important, solving any of them – even partially – would improve lives or save lives. It’s exciting stuff, and it’s tough to choose which project is more worthy – I think I’ll be supporting the water project.
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