What People Were Paid for Historically Significant Tasks
For many, many years, governments awarded some of the most brilliant minds with cash for exploring and improving the world. And in modern times, philanthropists have opened their pockets to entrepreneurs who could solve some of the world’s problems.
Sometimes, these prizes are all that’s needed to change the world — and sometimes the inventors and daredevils are catapulted into fame and fortune. At other times, they are only slightly rewarded and die in debt.
These are 12 inventions, discoveries and remarkable feats that helped change the world, and the rewards bestowed upon the inventors, explorers and daredevils.
Charting the New World
One study found that innovation prizes and reward programs date back to the 1700s, but it can be traced back even farther.
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered America. Well, no, he didn’t, but he did get rich. Christopher Columbus departed Spain in 1492 in search of a new, faster and safer trade route from Europe to Asia. He didn’t find it, but instead “found” several other countries and opened up the world to European expansion, which changed the world. The monarchs of Spain promised him 10 percent of all riches he could find and the promise of governorship of exotic new lands.
He was awarded a position of governor and viceroy of the Indies, where he ruled as a cruel tyrant — in one instance, he cut off a man’s nose and ears, then sold him into slavery for stealing corn. Eventually the King and Queen removed Columbus (and two of his brothers, who ruled beside him) from power and jailed him, but for less than two months. He was stripped of his titles, but lived out the rest of his days as a free man. According to History.com, Columbus “enjoyed a substantial revenue from Hispaniola gold during the last years of his life.”
“Can you hear me now? Oh good, I’m rich!”
That’s definitely not what Alexander Graham Bell said when he made the first phone call, but it could have been (the first sentence ever uttered over a telephone was Bell speaking to his assistant: “Mr. Watson, come here, I need you”). While Bell certainly did become rich after he founded what is now AT&T, he also received a cash prize for inventing the telephone of 50,000 francs in 1880 via the Volta Prize.
In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner hypothesized that the pus from cowpox blisters could be used to prevent people from getting smallpox. He was right — the first vaccination occurred in 1796, when Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy with cowpox, then tried to introduce smallpox into his system. The boy was immune, and this discovery — along with all subsequent vaccines — would save countless lives. Jenner put human lives over human dollars and didn’t patent the method. He was rewarded a total of £30,000 by the House of Commons in the early 1800s.
The First Trans-Atlantic Flight
The Daily Mail wasn’t always a supermarket stand rag in Britain. In 1913, the paper announced it would award a prize of £10,000 ($50,000) to the first pilot who could make it across the Atlantic Ocean within 72 hours. Six years later, in 1919, John Alcock and Arthur Brown claimed the prize by making it from Canada to Ireland in a 16-hour flight. Today, that $50,000 prize would be equivalent to about $776,000.
Forget the MLB, NBA, NFL and FIFA. Back in the late 1800s, billiards was the game everyone played. Which caused some ecological problems — billiards balls were crafted from elephant tusk (and only four or five could be crafted from one whole tusk), which contributed to the wide scale slaughter of elephants for the ivory trade (about 50,000 elephants per day were killed). In 1863, a New York billiards firm, seeing that ivory was getting harder to come by, put up a $10,000 reward for anyone who could create billiard balls made from an alternative source.
John Wesley Hyatt answered the call. Or at least he tried. Hyatt figured out that cotton fibers, resin and alcohol could be heated and combined to form a moldable substance. It was called celluloid, and it was the first synthetic plastic. However, it’s unclear if Hyatt actually won the $10,000 prize, although he and his brothers did go on to form their own billiard ball company. It remained in operation until 1986.
Crossing the English Channel
In 1909 The Daily Mail issued a reward of £1,000 to anyone who could fly across the English Channel in something other than a hydrogen balloon, which had previously been used to cross the waters. A French pilot named Louis Bleriot claimed the prize that same year, and the French government rewarded him with an additional 50,000 francs.
In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore the then-uncharted territory of the American west. Lewis and Clark, and their Corps of Discovery, explored for over two years, overcoming all kinds of hardships and successfully completing one of the most important journeys in American history. Were they paid fairly? Maybe not at first.
Lewis was paid $2,776.22 plus 1,600 acres of land, while Clark was paid $2,133.74, plus 1,600 acres of land, according to the National Park Service. President Thomas Jefferson then appointed Lewis as a territorial governor of what was then called Upper Louisiana. Clark was appointed as a general in the Louisiana territory and later became a governor in Louisiana as well as superintendent of Indian Affairs in that area. Lewis died just a couple of years after his government appointment, and it is believed that he died in debt.
The First Solo Transatlantic Flight
While Alcock and Brown conducted the very first transatlantic flight, but you’re more likely to hear the name Charles Lindbergh when discussing the world’s first aviation milestones.
In 1919, a New York hotelier named Raymond Orteig set up a $25,000 prize to be awarded to anyone who could fly nonstop from New York to Paris. More than a few tried and failed seeking Orteig’s fortune and worldwide fame, and six men died attempting the challenge. But Lindbergh didn’t. On May 20, 1927, he set off, alone, on the 33-and-a-half-hour nonstop flight in a single-engine plane called the Spirit of St. Louis.
He claimed the $25,000 prize (worth almost $366,000 in today’s dollars) but his reward didn’t end there. By the end of 1927 Lindbergh would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in America and the National Order of the Legion of Honor in France. Time magazine named him Man of the Year. He was 25 years old and remains the youngest person to ever be awarded that title.
Lindbergh’s adventure was monumentally important to aviation. According to NASA, “[W]ithin a year of that feat, the number of pilots in the US tripled, the number of planes quadrupled and airline companies saw their passengers increase 30 fold.”
The Self-Righting Lifeboat
After a lifeboat capsized and drowned twenty men at the mouth of the River Tyne in 1849, the Duke of Northumberland announced a prize of £100 to anyone who could invent a self-righting lifeboat. In 1850, a shipwright named James Beeching created the ship, and it was used nationally by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte needed a way to keep France’s army well fed when they were out conquering the world. So he set out a prize: 12,000 francs to anyone who could figure out a better way to keep food preserved. Nearly 15 years later, in 1809, Nicholas Appert claimed the prize. His solution? Heating and boiling the food, then storing it in champagne bottles sealed with cheese and lime. One year later, a British man used the same method, only with tin.
A New Era of Spaceflight
In 1996, the nonprofit prize organization XPRIZE launched a $10 million reward for any team that could build, launch and privately finance a spaceship capable of flying 62.5 miles from the Earth’s surface (the beginning of space) and safely return — and the launch and landing had to be done twice within two weeks. In 2004, the prize was claimed. Aerospace engineer Burt Rutan designed the spaceship, called SpaceShipOne, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen financed the endeavor.
While this event is rather recent, the XPRIZE sparked a new interest in space exploration and opened up the possibility for privately-financed space companies to explore the universe, and not just the government. For example, the ultimate goal of Elon Musk’s SpaceX is to reach Mars for colonization, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is looking to be the first space tourism company.
The Shutter Telegraph
Shutter telegraphs were invented in Britain during the 1790s. The Royal Navy Headquarters in London needed a way to convey fast and simple information to its fleets over at Portsmouth, and horse riders were too slow (it was also during the Napoleonic Wars; time was of the essence). It’s unclear if this invention was the result of a contest of sorts, but the Admiralty chose Reverend Lord George Murray’s version of the system for its military.
Murray is a curious historical footnote. It’s generally agreed that he received £2,000 pounds for his invention, but this academic paper, which cites the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, says that the British government had originally promised Murray £16,500 and that Murray died in debt. An online Scottish database notes that after Murray’s death, his wife became a Lady-in-Waiting for Queen Charlotte.
As for his telegraph system? It was dismantled after the war.