The List: Five prizes for changing the world

The biggest cash prize in economics after the Nobel will be awarded on July 5. But the £250,000 Wolfson Economics Prize – for the best plan for an orderly exit of one of more member states from the euro – is unusual in two respects. It will reward a proposal rather than an achievement, and it provides an incentive to dismantle a project rather than build one. Here are five more awards for world-changing achievements.

1. The Ansari X Prize

A $10m bounty, announced in 1996, attracted 26 teams in a contest to become the first to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people 100km above the Earth’s surface. It was modelled on the Orteig Prize, won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 for being the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. It was won in 2004 by aerospace designer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

2. Longitude Prize

John Harrison, a joiner and clockmaker from a humble background, claimed the British government’s £20,000 prize, offered in 1714 to anyone who could solve the problem of accurately pinpointing a ship’s longitude: the key to safe navigation and increased global trade. It took years for Harrison to prove that his devices worked to the satisfaction of the award committee, a fight documented in Dava Sobel’s 1995 bestseller Longitude.

3. Napoleon’s Preservation Prize

To line the stomachs on which his army famously marched, Napoleon Bonaparte needed a ready supply of properly preserved food. In 1795, he offered a Fr12,000 prize, won in 1810 by Nicolas Appert, a chef, confectioner and distiller. He came up with a bottling and boiling method, laying the foundation for the modern canning industry.

4. Netflix Prize

The internet video subscription service put up $1m in 2006 for developers who could improve its film recommendations. It hardly sounds like a world-changing goal but the extraordinary response – thousands of teams entered – awoke many companies to the potential for online crowdsourcing of innovation. It turned into a cautionary tale, though, as only two teams succeeded, and this year Netflix quietly revealed it had not even implemented the winning method because it couldn’t justify the engineering effort.

5. The MPrize

Offered by the splendidly named Methuselah Foundation, this competition invites scientists to find the secret of eternal life and the secret of eternal youth. The medium-term goals sound a bit less lofty: the Longevity Prize goes to the research team that breaks the world record for the oldest ever mouse (Andrzej Bartke is the holder, having kept a mouse going for 1,819 days) and the Rejuvenation Prize goes to researchers who can reverse some of the significant effects of ageing in mice. The prize money is drawn from a multimillion dollar fund: the greater the advance on the record set by the last winner, the bigger the payout.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor

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