For the first time since 1714, the British Government is offering the public a nice fat purse of cash to solve a world-altering problem – and like the original challenge 300 years ago, it is being called the ‘Longitude Prize’...

Longitude prize: H5 marine chronometer

John Harrison's remarkable H5 marine chronometer, which won the first edition of the longitude prize in 1761.

To put you in the picture, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, navigation at sea was difficult. A sextant and some celestial observation could give you a good idea of your latitude but longitude was much tougher. The big hope for improvement centred around the measurement of time - and the principle was simple. A sailor could always tell when it was noon at his location by observing the sun – so if he could also be certain of the time at a place of fixed longitude (such as Greenwich) then he could easily extrapolate how far east or west he must be of that line.

The movement of a ship (plus fluctuations in temperature and humidity) made the production of an accurate marine timepiece terribly difficult – but with so much hinging on projection of sea power, the Government offered £20,000 (about £3 million in today’s money) to the first man who could provide a solution. It took 47 years, but in 1761, a working class joiner called John Harrison created the first marine chronometer. It would enable the British to enjoy another two centuries of global penetration and it was only the arrival of modern GPS that finally rendered his technology obsolete.

Now this glorious story certainly reinforces the romantic notion that a simple man can change the world from the shed at the bottom of his garden – but before you start arranging your chisels, you might want to take a look at the six big issues being considered for the £10 million Longitude Prize, because they are extremely esoteric. They include fresh water production; antibiotic-resistance; a paralysis remedy; emissions-free flight; food for the world; and a cure for dementia. We have until 25th June to vote for the issue that is of greatest importance – but once it’s been decided, we may as well abandon our sheds and return our expanding arses to the sofa, because unless you happen to be a professional physicist with a well-funded laboratory, your chances of changing the world this time round look distinctly slim.

Technological progress towards reducing emissions (in aeroplanes) is one of the options for the next Longitude prize – here's a selection of green alternatives to fossil fuels on the water today from 5 alternatives to petrol-powered outboard engines.

Longitude prize

The 2014 Longitude Prize is open for votes.

Written by: Alex Smith
Alex Smith is a journalist, copywriter and magazine editor with a long history in boating and a happy addiction to the water. He’s worked on boats, lived on boats, bought boats, sold boats and – when he’s not actually on board a boat – he can generally be found in his Folkestone office, tapping away at the computer and gazing out to sea.