John Harrison and the Development of the Marine Chronometer

Several places in the video, the narrator gives the name of the inventor of the marine chronometer as “George Harrison”, not John Harrison—“While my chronometer gently weeps”.

For the complete and tangled story of the Longitude Act and the development of the chronometer, see Dava Sobel’s 1995 book, Longitude.

One might wonder why prizes are so rarely offered today for worthwhile achievements and inventions—after all, if nobody wins the cost is precisely zero, the benefit from the achievement is almost always far larger than the prize, and the competition to win a prize often results in investment by competitors much greater than the prize to the winner. As with so many things in which politics intrudes, it’s because competition for a prize provides insufficient opportunities for graft.


All sorts of reasons.

What if you find out the problem has already been solved or can be solved conventionally?

What if it’s insoluble and you are mocked for suggesting it?

Don’t leave the lawyers out. If you budget $1m for the prize, what do you budget for legal fees involved in resolving disputes?


Feynman was surprised his challenges has been met so quickly, but as I recall didn’t consider either as invalid or “cheating”—he simply underestimated the state of the art in micro-fabrication. The second prize, reducing text to fit on the head of a pin, was proposed in 1959 and not won until 1985, using technologies which did not exist in 1959, albeit not developed explicitly to win the prize.

Many prizes can be designed to be pretty unambiguous as to whether they’ve been won, for example “Return 100 grams of regolith from the permanently shadowed region of Shackleton crater on the Moon before December 31, 2028: US$ 100 million”. In the 1990s, Jerry Pournelle proposed:

A ten billion prize for a Lunar Colony Prize (keep 31 Americans alive and well on the Moon for 3 years and one day) would either get us a Moon Base or it would cost nothing. A reusable space ship prize of 5 billion (send the same ship to orbit 13 times in one year) would again get us a space ship or would cost nothing.


For my local library I purchased the Longitude docudrama so that I could talk to people about why throughout my public spirited activism I’ve always tried to emphasize how crucial is the distinction between objective and subjective judging criteria for incentives*. The Longitude docudrama shows in stark relief the role that politics and social status seeking play in attacking the bloodlines of men like John Harrison, whenever there is the slightest ambiguity to be exploited. In his case, it took intervention by King George with the Royal Society to put a stop to the nonsense.

Whenever I see things out of the X-Prize Foundation, the Gates Foundation (with its “Grand Challenges”) and so forth it really nauseates me, not simply because I know exactly what’s going on in those organizations, but because of the toxic environmental effects on a society that needs to understand the importance of this distinction.

* The BAFAR which became the CATS prize (thence Ansari underwriting the X-Prize), the fusion energy prize legislation and the C-Prize which became the Hutter Prize. Judging for a social science version of something like the Hutter Prize could and probably should be automated so there would be no room for doubt about conflicts of interest.


None of those reasons apply to underwriting the Hutter Prize which, over the 17 years it has been with us, has paid out a levelized rate of $100/month. At present there is virtually zero risk associated with that prize and the only arguments against it amount to:

“It’s impossible to do relevant knowledge modeling on a single CPU running with 10GB RAM.”


So nothing gets paid out for nothing and something gets paid out for the impossible?

BTW: This is where Sara Hooker’s grumpy assessment of the machine learning industry in “The Hardware Lottery” should motivate her and her very well endowed organization, to consult with Marcus Hutter on his reasoning for that hardware limitation.

1 Like