Many of us enjoy entering contests, figuring out how to add a creative twist to a prompt or challenge to get the chance to win a prize. Many of us tend to think that contest entry is a recent development, something that's really caught on in the last, oh, 50 years or so, maybe.
But nothing could be farther than the truth. Read about these 10 contests that changed history and you could be surprised to discover how much you owe to innovative contest entrants.
1. Contest Lets Sailors Figure Out Where They Are
In the days when many lives depended on the ability to correctly determine location at sea, navigators faced a difficult problem. It wasn't hard to determine the latitude of the ship, based on the location of the sun. However, it was impossible to accurately fix the ship's position in terms of longitude.
The major sea-faring nations, including the British, the Dutch, and the Spanish offered large rewards for solving the problem. Most predicted that there would be a way to use star charts to fix longitude.
However, the eventual solution had to do with time. As a ship moves from east to west, it crosses several time zones. By calculating the local time, the ship can determine where it is. Of course, in the days before digital watches, timekeeping devices were not accurate on a ship, where heat, cold, salt, and water could affect them.
The eventual prize went to Britshman John Harris, a nearly uneducated working man, who created a highly accurate portable clock that could be used to calculate longitude.
2. Potatoes Become Popular, Thanks to a Contest
Potatoes are a huge part of our diet today, but in Europe in the 1700's, it was virtually unknown. The potato had been discovered in South America, but many avoided it because the vegetable was believed to be poisonous or cause leprosy.
In the 1770's, however, famine swept through Europe, killing a large percentage of the population, and a very poor wheat harvest in 1769 caused panic in France. In response, the French Provincial Academie de Besancon offered a prize for discovering a "food substances capable of reducing the calamities of famine." The winner -- Antoine Parmentier, who championed the cause of the lowly potato.
3. Napoleon Contest Spurs Creation of Canned Foods
Napoleon Bonaparte faced many problems in his goal to dominate Europe, one of which was feeding a large and sprawling army, even when marching across areas that had been stripped of food. Even when food could be found, it would often spoil before it could be brought to the troops that needed it. So Napoleon offered a contest, with a prize of 12,000 francs, to the person who could come up with the most innovative new method of storing food.
The winner was Nicolas François Appert, who submitted a method of boiling and sealing food in glass bottles in 1809. The technique caught on quickly, and tin cans were substituted for glass a few years later. It wasn't until 50 years later, when Louis Pasteur discovered that heating kills microbes, that they understood why the heating process worked so well.
4. Napoleon III Contest to Thank for Margarine
In the 1860's, demand for butter in Paris was fast outstripping the supply, and the prices were soaring out of control. Napoleon III followed the success of his famous uncle's contests with a call for a substitute for butter that could help meet the supply and keep prices reasonable.
The winner was Hippolyte Mège-Mouriez, a frequent inventor who had also won a contest for the creation of drugs to combat side effects of a common cure for syphilis. He offered oleomargarine, whose name was later shortened to margarine, as a low-cost butter alternative made from vegetable fats. He was granted patents to manufacture margarine in Europe and America.
5. Charles Lindbergh's Historic Flight Due to Contest
Many people have heard of the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh, and how he flew the first solo non-stop flight from New York to Paris. His plane, the Spirit of Saint Louis, hangs in the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution to this day. But did you know that it was a contest that spurred the historic flight?
Lindbergh was motivated by the Orteig Prize, offered by famous hotelier Raymond Orteig, which promised $25,000 cash for the first aviator to make the flight. Six people died attempting to win the prize before Lindbergh seized it. Lindbergh's success spurred American interest in aviation. Elinor Smith Sullivan said that after Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize, "suddenly everyone wanted to fly, and there weren't enough planes to carry them."