Today we will hear from the prime minister, David Cameron, about the launch of a new “Longitude Prize”. The £1m top prize is, he will say, intended to help the search “for the next penicillin, aeroplane or world wide web”, according to the BBC report. Lord Rees, the current Astronomer Royal, will head a “Longitude Committee” to judge ideas.
It seems likely that, as we hear more about the design of the competition, the foci of the scheme will be narrowed and, I hope, that some ongoing means of aiding potential competitors will be brought in. We, and they, should recall that the original Longitude Prize was focused on one very specific problem with a number of understood technical challenges. In addition, as I have written elsewhere, John Harrison’s timekeepers would not have been produced without long-term financial investment. A prize is not enough.
Nevertheless, the public face of this project is interesting so far for its hugely wide range. Part of the competition seems to be coming up with a good challenge: what is it we actually want to have solved? Cameron will be asking, “What is the biggest challenge the world faces in the coming years, and how do we solve it?”. The other key theme, of course, is the very obvious connection with the longitude story.
The timing of the prize coincides with the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act next year. I assume that Cameron and Rees would like to have their problem defined and perhaps solved rather quicker that the century it took for the astronomical and timekeeping longitude solutions to become “practicable and useful at sea” – the demand of the 1714 Act.
As I have written elsewhere, though, there was no such thing as the Longitude Prize, and the Longitude Act may actually have had very little effect in speeding up the process of innovation. The history of longitude suggests that new ideas and technologies depend on communities of educated and/or skilled people, on the ability to share and discuss ideas, the possibility of making use of others’ skills and sufficient time and funding for research and development. New products either need a ready market or they must be supported and subsidised.
Nevertheless, as one of the team researching the history of the Board of Longitude, I am fascinated by the notion that a new Longitude Committee will be formed. Having the Astronomer Royal on board is entirely appropriate. All the Astronomers Royal between the 1714 Act and the closure of the Board in 1828 were key individuals for longitude projects to approach. All were ex officio Commissioners of Longitude and some, most especially Nevil Maskelyne, were essential drivers for all the Board’s activity.
For most of the Board of Longitude’s existence the most active members beyond the Astronomer Royal were the President of the Royal Society, the Oxbridge (later also London) professors of astronomy and mathematics, the First Lord and Secretaries of the Admiralty. Late in its life, after the penultimate in a long line of additional Longitude Acts was passed in 1818, there was an attempt to transform the Board into a scientific advisory committee, including paid positions for six advisers, three of whom were chosen from among the Fellows of the Royal Society. For more technical and practical knowledge, expert instrument makers and practical seamen might also be called as committee members or witnesses.
Who, apart from Lord Rees, will be included in the new committee? And what might a comparison of the Board then with the Committee today tell us about where authority and expertise – or good PR – rest today?