Earlier this year, I wrote about the sudden rediscovery of the idea that prizes might be a good alternative to grants or patents as a way of promoting innovation:
In an ideal world, prizes could replace patents. Instead of offering a patent for an innovation, the government could offer a prize. The inventor would pocket the prize but would not be allowed to exploit any monopoly power, so the innovation would be freely available to use in products for poor consumers – cheap drugs for Africa, for instance – and, importantly, in further innovations. But to explain that idea is to see its limitations. How could the government know enough about the costs and benefits – and even the very possibility – of an innovation to put a price tag on it and write the terms of reference for a prize competition? For this reason it is hard to see prizes replacing patents in most cases. But it is not impossible.
The modern heir to 18th-century prizes for canning, water turbines and finding longitude at sea is the advanced market commitment for vaccines for the poor: the goal is clear, the costs and benefits can be guessed at, and the quasi-prize nudges the patent system to one side with a prize contract that respects the patent but, in exchange for a large subsidy, radically constricts the holder’s right to exploit it.
At the time I wrote the piece, I wish I had seen this gorgeous list of historical prizes:
Napoleon Sugar Beet Prize (1810)
In 1810, facing blockade of its ports, Napoleon offered a large prizefor the best method of extracting sugar from beets. The prize was part of a large set of national incentives and mandates to stimulate the production of sugar from beets.
Art of Piercing or Boring Artesian Wells (1818)
Similar in purpose to the 1797 book on Elkington’s methods of drainage, in 1818, the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry in France offered a reward of 3,000 francs for “the best manual, or practical and elementary instructions upon the art of piercing or boring Artesian wells with the miner’s or fountaineer’s augur, from 25 metres (82 feet), to 100 metres (328 feet) depth, and deeper if possible.” The award was given by the Society in 1821 to Mr. Gamier, for an important and useful discussion of the use of Artesian wells employed for the discharge of foul and infected water.
Wisconsin Prize for Mechanical Substitute for Horses and Other Animals (1875)
In 1875, the Wisconsin legislature passed an act authorizing the payment of a $10,000 bounty to “any citizen of Wisconsin, who shall invent, and after five years continued trial and use, shall produce a machine propelled by steam or other motive agent, which shall be a cheap and practical substitute for the use of horses, and other animals on the highway and farm.” The law was amended twice in the next two years, with the final 1877 version eliminating the requirement for “five years continued trial and use,” while adding specific requirements for winning the prize. Contestants with machines that could operate in both forward and reverse were required to complete a 200-mile route at “not less than five miles per hour working time,” and to perform certain functions, such as plowing and pulling loaded wagons. Trials were conducted in 1878 and ended in controversy when one of the judges refused to grant the full prize money to a contestant many observers thought had satisfied the contest rules. Subsequently, two crews split part of the prize money.
Highland and Agricultural Society of Edinburgh Reaper Prize (1826)
Apple and Pear Prize (1826)
Substitute for Guano (1852)
Napoleon III Margarine Prize (1869)
French Prize Competition in Irrigation Practice (1874)
Italian Prize Competition in Irrigation Practice (1879)
Soviet Committee for Invention Authorship Certificates (1931)
Australian Film Bounty (1933)
Soviet Rewards for Aircraft Design (1946,7)
Burkina Faso Innovation Prizes (1994)
Don’t tell me you’re not curious. Here is the source; Alex Tabarrok pointed me to it some time ago.