Innovation

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In 1714, the British government offered a prize for a method of determining longitude at sea, with an award of £20,000 (three million pounds in today’s terms). John Harrison, a Yorkshire carpenter, worked on the project for several decades and eventually in 1761, came up with a design that proved accurate on a long voyage to Jamaica. The scientific establishment refused to believe that a Yorkshire carpenter could possibly have solved the problem that had stumped the best scientific minds. In 1773, when he was 80 years old, Harrison received a monetary award in the amount of £8,750 from Parliament for his achievements, but he never received the actual prize. A Yorkshire carpenter was the wrong person to have solved the problem.

In 1865, Gregor Mendel, an unknown professor read a paper at two meetings of the Natural History Society of Brünn in Moravia, giving the results of studies in which he had cultivated and tested some 29,000 pea plants. His study presented a solution to a problem that had stumped the finest scientific minds. The paper was ignored by the international scientific community for the succeeding 35 years until it was eventually realized that Mendel had indeed come up with the solution. His work later became known as Mendel's Laws of Inheritance and he was hailed as the father of modern genetics, but his work was ignored by the scientific community. A researcher on peas in Moravia was the wrong person to have solved the problem.

In 1981, Barry Marshall, a pathologist in Perth, Australia, came up with an odd idea: stomach ulcers are caused by the presence of spiral bacteria. His idea was at odds with the thinking of the international scientific community. It was ridiculed by the establishment scientists and doctors. How could bacteria possibly live in the acidic environment of the stomach? In 1984, frustrated by the widespread disrespect for his ideas, Marshall actually drank a Petri dish of liquid containing the spiral bacteria, expecting to develop, perhaps years later, an ulcer. He was surprised when, only three days later, he developed ulcer symptoms. It took until 2005 before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. An obscure pathologist from Perth had been the wrong person to have solved the problem.

(c): Copied from Steven Denning at Forbes.