10 Times that Contests Changed the World

Some Contests Are More than Just Fun; These Changed History

A woman with potatoes in a vegetable garden
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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. We might think of contests as a fun way to spend some extra time, but not that they have much impact on the world around us.

But nothing could be further than the truth. Contests have been held for hundreds or thousands of years, and some of them have changed history. You might be surprised to discover how much contests have affected your life.

1. A Contest Helped Sailors Pinpoint Where They Were

In the days when sailors' lives depended on the ability to determine their location at sea accurately, navigators faced a difficult problem. It wasn't hard to determine the ship's latitude using 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 contests with large rewards for solving the problem. The most common theory was 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 Britishman John Harris, a nearly uneducated working man, who created a portable clock that withstood the elements and was accurate enough to calculate longitude.

2. You Might Like Potatoes Due to a Contest

Potatoes are a huge part of our diet today, but in Europe in the 1700s, they were virtually unknown. The potato had been discovered in South America, but many avoided it because the vegetable was believed to be poisonous, to incite strong sexual urges, or to cause leprosy. Human consumption of potatoes was actually illegal in France for these reasons.

In the 1770s, however, famine swept through Europe, killing a large percentage of the population. To make things worse, a very poor wheat harvest in 1769 caused panic in France, and there was an urgent need to find other foods to replace flour and other wheat-based foods. 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 was Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who championed the cause of the lowly potato.

Parmentier showed that potatoes could replace wheat to make potato bread, could help nourish people suffering from dysentery, and published a potato cookbook. So if you love french fries, mashed potatoes, or any other potato concoction, you can thank a contest for bringing them to you.

3. We Wouldn't Have Canned Foods Without a Contest that Napoleon Sponsored

Napoleon Bonaparte faced many problems in his goal to dominate Europe, one of which was feeding a large and sprawling army. Especially since said army would often be forced to march across areas that had been stripped of food. What food could be gathered would often spoil before it could be brought to the troops that needed it. To find a way to deal with this problem, 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 safely 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 containers 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. Without Contests, We Wouldn't Have Margarine

In the 1860s, demand for butter in Paris was fast outstripping the supply, and the prices were soaring out of control. Emporer Louis Napoleon III took the idea of his famous uncle's contests and put out a call for a substitute for butter that could help meet the demand and keep prices reasonable.

The winner was Hippolyte Mège-Mouriez, a frequent inventor who also won a contest for the creation of drugs to combat side effects of a common cure for syphilis. He came up with 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. A Contest Inspired Charles Lindbergh's Historic Flight

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."

6. The Steam Tractor Was Developed Because of a Contest

As automobiles began to replace horse-drawn carriages on the road, people started to wonder if they could also replace horses in the fields. Technology that could allow more food to be produced at a lower cost in time and money would clearly be a huge advantage to farmers.

So in 1875, the Wisconsin government offered a $10,000 reward, hefty at the time, to the first person who could make an affordable device that could be used on roads and could also replace animals in the field. The requirements included being able to travel at least 200 miles on a road at an average speed of at least 5 miles an hour.

Two inventors rose to the challenge, and the steam tractors "Oshkosh" and "Green Bay" started out on what might be the world's first automotive race. The Green Bay broke down partially through the race, but the Oshkosh continued to finish with an average speed of 6 MPH.

The governor of Wisconsin, however, didn't want to award the prize to the Oshkosh, calling the tractor impractical. Eventually, the Oshkosh development team received $4,000 and the Green Bay team got $1,000.

7. A Contest Drives the Solution to Fermat's Last Theorem

In 1637, mathematician Pierre de Fermat wrote, "I have a truly marvelous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain" about his theorem, "If an integer n is greater than 2, then the equation a raised to the n power + b raised to the n power = c raised to the n power has no solutions in non-zero integers a, b, and c." Unfortunately, he died before ever writing out his proof, and the problem puzzled mathematicians for centuries.

In 1906, Paul Wolfskehl left a princely sum as a prize to the mathematician who could prove the theorem. It took nearly 80 years, but in 1997 Andrew Wiles claimed the prize.

8. Contests Encourage Advancements in Nanotechnology

Today, we're enjoying more and more gadgets that incorporate tiny technology like MP3 players that can hold thousands of songs and yet are smaller than a single finger. Much of the research into tiny technology has been spurred by contest prizes.

For example, physicist Richard Feynman identified the need for smaller technology back in 1959, when he offered the Feynman Prizes for a motor smaller than 1/64th of an inch per side and for writing done in 1/250,000 scale. William McLellan seized the prize for the tiny motor in 1960, but it took an additional 15 years for Thomas Newman to achieve the prize for miniature writing in 1985. These contests are still spurring developments today.

9. Artificial Intelligence Developed Due to Contest

You might have heard about the legendary chess match where the computer A.I. "Deep Blue" defeated reigning world champion Gary Kasparov at a game of chess. But did you know that the impetus to build Deep Blue came from a contest?

The contest was a challenge to create a computer that could beat a chess expert at his own game, literally. A $500,000 prize was offered to a team that could develop an artificial intelligence that could outstrategize a champion.

In 1996, a team from IBM completed the challenge by creating a computer that could seem almost human-like in its strategy, launching a psychological attack against its human opponent. 

10. Contest Sends the First Private Aircraft Into Space

In the spirit of the Orteig Prize that sent Lindbergh across the Atlantic, the X-Prize Foundation offered a prize of $10 million in cash to the first privately-owned aircraft to reach space (defined as 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface) with at least three people on board, and then to repeat the achievement within two weeks.

In 2004, Scaled Components, an experimental aircraft company owned by aeronautics designer Burt Rutan, won the $10,000,000 prize with its aircraft, SpaceShipOne. As the first privately funded human spaceflight, the achievement has caused a great amount of interest in private space exploration.

The X-Prize Foundation continues to offer contests to spur innovations in the field of flight and space exploration.

Contests have had a major impact on human history in the past, and continue to do so today. Not all of the contest winners were doctors, physicists, or scientists, either. Why don't you try your hand at changing history by entering contests today?