A Battery Prize

As the British Empire was expanding its reach both for military supremacy and trade, navigation at sea was a limiting factor. Latitude, the angular distance from the equator, was relatively easy to determine in the sixteenth century. It could be measured by the angle between the horizon and the North Star or by the sun’s angular position at noon coupled with tables of solar declination.

Unfortunately, determination of longitude was more difficult. In principle, it could be calculated astronomically or with a sufficiently accurate clock. The necessary astronomical observations, though useful on land, were impossible to make from a bobbing platform of a ship. The most accurate clocks relied on a pendulum as a timekeeper. However, the motion of the ship and the large changes in temperature rapidly degraded such a clock’s accuracy.

The British were painfully reminded of this inadequacy in 1707. After a victory over the French, four British warships were destroyed when through a longitude navigation error they struck shoals around the Scilly Islands, and thousands of sailors perished. Clearly dead reckoning based on estimated speed was not sufficient for navigation.

This prompted the British Parliament in 1714 to offer the Longitude Prize, 20,000 pounds for a practical method of measuring longitude to within 60 nautical miles. In the popular book Longitude, Dava Sobel, artfully describes John Harrison’s three-decade pursuit of the prize through the steady improvement of his clocks. Sobel’s story explained Harrison’s very human struggle. It took decades to effectively claim his prize. The Longitude Board established to adjudicate the prize always seemed to keep moving the threshold for the prize. Harrison finally claimed the balance of his prize in 1765.

Now in response to rapidly increasing oil prices, Senator John McCain has suggested that we might mimic the success of the Longitude Prize with an $300 million prize for anyone or group that can produce a battery with “the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

It is hard to argue against the offer of such a prize, not as substitute for additional action, but as away to draw attention and excitement to the technological challenge. Certainly, there is little cost to the prize unless its challenge is successfully met. Under those circumstances, no one would begrudge the prize.

There is one important lesson we can apply from the Longitude Prize. During his efforts, Harrison was granted stipends from the Longitude Board for promising innovations. If the government ultimately offers a Battery Prize, it should offer intermediate awards for important, but incremental steps along the way. This would maintain interest and keep monetary awards within reach. For example, there might be a prize for an alternate battery chemistry with higher energy density, that might still be more expensive than a conventional battery.

Innovation does not always occur at large institutions with large budgets. Indeed, “out of the box” thinking is hard to nurture at large research establishment and private companies. A Battery Prize might be just he motivation for a break through. There is certainly little downside.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.