Almost with the birth of the airplane, wealthy businessmen or organizations interested in the development of aviation established prizes to help advance the technology of flight. And they did, a lot.
During the first third of the twentieth century, a host of cash awards encouraged designers and pilots to undertake great feats in the fledgling aeronautical industry—in spite of difficulties and risks. By 1929 over 50 major aeronautical prizes had been offered by government, businesses, and individuals.
The first American prize was the James Gordon Bennet International Aeronautic Trophy (named for the New York publisher), established in 1906—awarding $2,500 to the winner of an annual international inter-club, long-distance flight open to “all kinds of apparatus for aerial locomotion.” Frank P. Lahm, a U.S. military aviator, won the first competition in 1906, and Antoni Janusz of Poland won the last. The competition ceased in 1938.
Between 1908 and 1927 an international Michelin Cup race was held with a series of prizes being awarded for the longest distance covered in a closed circuit, nonstop, between sunrise and sundown. Wilbur Wright won the first Michelin Cup in 1908. In 1911 a cup was awarded to Emmanuel Helen for the longest flight in a closed circuit over the countryside, with stops authorized, at an average speed of 55 km per hour. The prize was worth 20,000 francs. In 1927 the ante was “upped” to 30,000 francs for increased speed.
In 1909 the Daily Mail of London offered a one-time prize of £1000 for the first aviator to fly across the English Channel. Within a few months, on July 25, French aviator Louis Bleriot accomplished the feat.
On August 22-29, 1909, the first international air meet was held in Reims, France. Prizes were offered for speed, endurance, altitude and a variety of aircraft categories. American aviation Glenn H. Curtiss won the prize for speed offered by the New York Herald, and French flyer Henri Farman won the endurance prize with a flight lasting more than three hours.
In 1911 one of the most enduring of all prizes was offered for the first time, the Robert J. Collier Trophy, given annually for the “for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, or safety of air or space vehicles.” Glenn H. Curtiss won the first and second competitions in 1911 and 1912. Orville Wright took the third in 1913. NASA, and its predecessor organization, the NACA, has received 19 Collier trophies over the years.
In 1911 William Randolph Hearst offered a $50,000 prize to the first person to complete transcontinental air trip within 30 days. Many attempts followed, the most successful was by Calbraith (Cal) Perry Rodgers, who reached Pasadena, CA, on November 5, 1911, 19 days too late to claim the prize, but nonetheless greeted by a crowd of 10,000 cheering Californians. His flight took 69 stops, 19 crashes and 49 days, but Rodgers completed his journey. He missed the deadline, but made history by completing the first transcontinental flight. Perhaps it is fitting that Rodgers’ epitaph reads: “I endure—I conquer!”
On June 15, 1919, Captain John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown won the £10,000 prize offered by the London Daily Mail in 1913 offered £10,000 for the first successful transatlantic flight (between England and America).
On May 22, 1919, Raymond Orteig, a wealthy New York hotel owner, offered $25,000 as a prize for the first aviator to cross the Atlantic from New York to Paris (or the shores of France) or vice versa without a stop. This, was the most famous of all aviation prizes and was won by Charles A. Lindbergh on May 21, 1927, when he successfully completed the first solo flight in 33 hours and 30 minutes.
Between 1920 and 1926, aviators competed for the Pulitzer Trophy, an annual speed competition with cash prizes.
In 1926-1927, Daniel Guggenheim alone offered more than $2.5 million in aviation-related cash awards and trophies (worth in excess of $110 million in 2010 dollars). His endowment allowed the establishment of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), renamed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during World War II.
On August 12, 1927, industrialist James Dole offered $25,000 for the first flier and $10,000 for the second flier to cross from the North American continent to Honolulu in a nonstop flight within one year of the announcement of the competition. Art Goebel and his navigator, Lt. Bill Davis came in first, while Martin Jensen and Paul Schulter claimed second.
In 1930, Tokyo’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper created a 100,000 yen ($50,000) prize for a successful non-stop crossing of the Pacific by a Japanese pilot (half that money if foreigners made the flight). Japanese and American contenders quickly appeared. Among them were two American pilots, Clyde “Upside Down” Pangborn and Hugh Herndon, Jr., who after a series of misadventures in the war-torn Orient, departed Samishiro Beach, Japan, on October 3, 1931, and reached Wenatchie, Washington, on October 5th. Pangborn and Herndon made the Pacific crossing in 41 hours and 13 minutes, the first non-stop flight across the Pacific. There, they collected $25,000 from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
In 1931 the Vincent Bendix Trophy was established to encourage experimental work in connection with increased speed in the field of aviation. This trophy was awarded 25 times between 1931 and 1962. Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes were the first women to win the trophy in 1936.
Since World War II there have been far fewer aeronautical prizes offered, but some have been notable.
Between 1947 and 1949 the Goodyear Trophy was offered. This trophy, a sterling silver tray and $25,000 was given in a speed competition. William Brennand won it first in 1947, and last in 1949. Herman R. Salmon was the only other winner, in 1948.
In 1960 the Henry Kremer Prize was first offered for human-powered flight. This prize, originally valued at £5,000, grew to £50,000 and inspired dozens of private individuals and university teams to advance the state of the art. In 1977, a team led by Paul MacCready captured the prize by flying a figure eight along a half-mile course. Two weeks later, Kremer offered a prize of £100,000 for the first human-powered airplane to cross the English Channel. In only two years, a lightweight human powered craft named the Gossamer Albatross made history by flying the 22.5 miles separating England from France.
On May 18, 1996, aviation prizes made the jump to space. On that date, Peter Diamandis and the X-PRIZE Foundation announced the establishment of the X-PRIZE, a $10 million cash prize to be awarded to the first private team that develops and safely flies a spacecraft capable of three passengers into sub-orbital space and back. The craft would have to make the trip twice within a two week period. In 2004 SpaceShipOne won this prize, by then renamed the Ansari X-Prize, with a spacecraft that resulted from a joint venture of Burt Rutan and Paul Allen.
There is considerable evidence of prizes have stimulated designers and pilots to compete for the prize money. They prompted pilots and designers to “push the envelope” of technology for faster, farther, higher, better, and more efficient vehicles.
Competition for aerospace prizes has also sparked private investment and innovation. The best example is the Orteig Prize which stimulated at least nine serious attempts to cross the Atlantic in the 1920s. Where $25,000 was offered, nearly $400,000 (or 16 times the prize value) was invested in aeronautics to win the prize. Also significant has been the Ansari X-Prize won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne, which has kicked off the age of commercial space tourism.
We may see this yet again with the Google Lunar X-Prize, a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robotic rover to the Moon, travel 500 meters and transmit back to Earth. I hope so.