Podcast 006: The X Factor

In This Episode: How two men 70 years apart inspired others to change the world in a massive display of Uncommon Sense.

Jump To…

Show Notes

  • An article about the first X Prize.
  • The XPrize Foundation web site.
  • Recent article about the water machine (pictured below): Fast Company.
  • And: see below for a photo of Orteig and Lindbergh, and SpaceShipOne.
Making clean water out of thin air — on the cheap. (Photo: Skysource/Skywater Alliance)

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Transcript

The more common sense in the world, the more chances we have to see Uncommon Sense — which is to say, common sense taken to the next level. I’ll talk in later episodes how the common people (you know, like us!) can develop our own common sense, and maybe even achieve Uncommon Sense. This episode, meanwhile, is a story about how someone figured out a way to get people to push forward, to think hard, and to solve real problems. I call it: The X Factor.

I’m Randy Cassingham, welcome to Uncommon Sense.

Raymond Orteig was born in France, and in 1882, at age 12, he emigrated to the United States — alone! He had an uncle here, in New York City, and the boy, who arrived with his life savings of 13 Francs, went right to work, getting a job as a bar porter at a restaurant. He later moved up to waiter, and then maitre’d at a hotel. By the time Orteig was 22, he was well established as a hard-working immigrant versed in good customer service, and was saving much of his earnings. In fact by then he had saved so much that when the owner of the hotel told Orteig he was selling and moving on, Orteig bought the place. He renamed it the Hotel Lafayette — hey, I said he was French! — and, with a partner, even leased a second hotel to start building his business even faster.

During World War I, the Lafayette was a favorite hangout for airmen — especially French officers who were stationed in the city to work with their American allies. As Orteig grew wealthy, his philanthropic activities in New York made him a leading citizen of the city. His home country even recognized his leadership by making him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

Shortly after the war, the Aero Club of America hosted American flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker for a speech in New York City. Orteig, having quite an interest in aeronautics from spending time with airmen in his hotel, attended. He was quite inspired by Rickenbacher’s speech, in part because he promoted friendship between America and France, and the Ace said he looked forward to something that seemed almost impossible at the time: the day when airplanes could link America and France. It was 1919, and the airplanes of the time couldn’t possibly cross the Atlantic and make it such a distance!

And that’s what gave Orteig a great idea: a way to inspire progress in aeronautics. Orteig wrote to the Aero Club of America in May 1919 with a fabulous offer. He wrote:

Gentlemen: As a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care.

Yours very sincerely,
Raymond Orteig

He set a five-year deadline to really push things, and the Aero Club agreed to administer the prize. Now, $25,000 in 1919 was a lot of money — equivalent to about $375,000 today. But the technology of the time couldn’t make such an audacious goal safe enough to even try: the 5-year deadline went without even one attempt, so Orteig didn’t just promise to renew the prize, he deposited the $25,000 in a bank, and put a Board of Trustees in charge of it. That meant there was no longer a time limit, and payment was guaranteed.

That — and improvements in technology — got serious attempts in gear! The first was a team put together by aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky, and here’s where we begin to understand that it’s not so much the prize money that pushes innovation, it’s the prestige: to win the $25,000 prize, Sikorsky spent about $100,000! In 1926 his team took off in the plane Sikorsky built especially for the challenge: the three-engine S-35. On takeoff from Long Island in New York, the horribly overweight plane crashed. Obviously it was loaded with enough fuel to make it to Paris, so it’s actually kind of amazing that only two of its four-man crew were killed.

Teams on both sides of the pond made their tries, and all told, six men died in three different crashes, including a plane with a crew of two that took off from France, was spotted off the coast of Ireland …and never seen again. In a fourth crash, the three-man crew survived with injuries. It was a tough, tough goal. But between the prize and the chance to go down in history, well, they were willing to take such risks.

Well, you probably know what happened: an American Air Mail pilot decided the way to do it was to fly alone to save weight, with a single engine to improve efficiency, and — get this — a periscope to be able to see forward because the pilot’s view was blocked by extra fuel tanks. He took off, and Orteig just happened to be vacationing in France at the time and, thanks to a timely telegram, was present when Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St Louis in Paris on May 21st, 1927, after 33-1/2 hours of flight from New York.

Lindbergh (he was 6’3″) accepting congratulations — and $25,000 — from Orteig. (Click to see larger.)

Did I mention going down in history? Surely you know the name Charles Lindbergh, who went from an unknown Air Mail pilot to a world hero in those 33-1/2 hours. You probably even already knew the name of his plane. In 1927, just about everyone in the Western world knew about both. “I was astonished at the effect my successful landing in France had on the nations of the world,” Lindbergh said later. “It was like a match lighting a bonfire.” Lindbergh and Orteig were able to meet at the American Embassy the next day — which happened to be exactly eight years from the day Orteig announced his prize. In a ceremony back in New York the next month, Orteig presented Lindbergh with the prize money.

After a tour around the United States, Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis to Washington D.C. and presented it to the Smithsonian Institution, where it has been on display since. I’ve seen it at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

In all, nine different teams competed for the prize, spending about $400,000 — and six lives — to win the $25,000 prize — and go down in history.

Now here’s where it gets interesting — to me, at least! Jump forward about 70 years, and to the mind of another entrepreneur, Peter Diamandis, the son of Greek immigrants who was educated at MIT and Harvard. Born in 1961, Diamandis grew up while the United States was first shooting astronauts into orbit in the race to land the first men on the moon. Diamandis was fascinated by the whole idea, and later, even though he was training as a medical doctor at Harvard, he put that on hold for a few years while he went back to MIT to get his Master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics and, by the way, doing research at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. He then returned to Harvard to complete his M.D. degree. But, while doing that, on the side he ran a company called International Micro Space, which had a goal to launch “microsatellites.”

That company failed, but then Diamandis read about how Lindbergh and others were inspired by the Orteig Prize, and that it helped jump-start leaps in technology that made the world a smaller and better place with improved airplanes. So maybe Diamandis realized that he couldn’t personally start a revolution in the space business, but he could create such a prize of his own. In 1986, he challenged designers to push technology forward in space: he wanted private companies to not only build spacecraft, but spacecraft that could carry passengers. And not just that, but like airliners, they should be reusable. So his challenge was, build a spacecraft big enough for at least three passengers which could get into space — which is widely defined as a minimum altitude of 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles — land, and then do it again within two weeks. Oh, and no government funding: he wanted a fair competition with real entrepreneurs like himself. And then he found someone to fund the prize — $10 million.

Diamandis called it the “X Prize”. Just like the Orteig Prize, it spurred competition and innovation. In all, 26 teams from seven countries spent more than $100 million to win it. And, by the way, 18 years: in 2004, SpaceShipOne did it, and was awarded the prize. That space ship, designed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, was funded with about $25 million by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who died last month. And by the way, as part of that effort, Scaled Composites was awarded the first license for suborbital rocket flights to be issued by the U.S. Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and isn’t its very existence a reflection of where we expect humans to go?!

And today, SpaceShipOne is hanging in the Smithsonian, alongside the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Apollo 11 command module, which carried the first crew to land on the moon. And, meanwhile, a commercial company called SpaceX is routinely re-using spacecraft, making access to space dramatically cheaper, which helps taxpayers and space-related businesses alike.

SpaceShipOne — and you can see how close it is to the Spirit of St. Louis. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)

But that’s not the end of the story!

The XPrize Foundation still exists. It learned from the prestige: the foundation leveraged its resulting fame from that first X Prize to bring in more prize money for more inspiring advancements, with three main goals: One, Attract investment from outside the sector that takes new approaches to difficult problems; Two, Create significant results that are real and meaningful. Competitions have measurable goals, and are created to promote adoption of the innovation. And Three, to Cross national and disciplinary boundaries to encourage teams around the world to invest the intellectual and financial capital required to solve difficult challenges.

That’s what we’re talking about! So, what kind of challenges and advancements?

In 2010, spurred by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, XPrize announced a $1.5 million competition to spur new technologies to clean oil from oceans. Five new companies were started specifically to compete, and we got new technologies to clean oil from oceans.

In 2011, a $10 million prize was announced to make real a prop from the original Star Trek TV series: the Tricorder. Or, more specifically, a portable medical device that can “diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians.” But yes, they actually called it a Tricorder! Why not give a nod to their inspiration! And to win that, the device had to accurately diagnose 13 medical conditions, such as hypertension and tuberculosis, monitor the patient’s vital signs, and do it in a way that the patient has a good experience with it. The winning device is now in clinical testing, and you can be sure other companies that competed also came up with interesting and useful new technologies.

And, the one that gave me the idea to talk about this was announced in 2016: the challenge was to literally harvest fresh, clean, drinkable water out of thin air — and do it with renewable energy. Clean water is critical: none of us can live without it, but it wouldn’t do any good if it cost a fortune and polluted the planet. Thus, the winning technology had to be able to pull 2,000 liters of water a day out of the air at a cost not to exceed 2 cents per liter, and be powered in a sustainable way.

Is that even possible? Sure! At any given moment, the Earth’s atmosphere holds 12 quadrillion gallons of water! And sure enough, the award was paid out on October 30 of this year to the team that built a machine that’s shown on the Show Page: it fits into a standard shipping container, and can be powered not just by solar panels, but even wood or animal dung, without producing smoke! It’s actually carbon-negative — the process not only makes water, but sequesters carbon. And it’s not likely to have been created without the impetus of a prize announcement effectively saying hey: this is needed!

Diamandis himself put it this way: “The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.”

And the XPrize is helping these breakthroughs happen — “encourag(ing) teams around the world to invest the intellectual and financial capital required to solve difficult challenges.”

Now, I’m not saying the X Prize is the first or the only, or even that the Orteig Prize was first. But Orteig inspired not only innovation in aeronautics, but Diamandis, which spurred innovation in space. And while not every such challenge has been met, I’ll bet every one of them spurred thinking, and very often led to the creation of new companies, and new technologies.

There are other X Prizes waiting to be won: you can see what they are at XPrize.org.

That’s why I call it the X Factor, and if Diamandis not just realizing that kind of prize will spur innovation, but creating a foundation to actually do it in an ongoing way to improve the world — if that’s not Uncommon Sense, I don’t know what is!

Thanks for listening. The Show Page has some photos and links to more information, and a place to comment. That’s at thisistrue.com/podcast6

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

5 thoughts on “Podcast 006: The X Factor

  1. I love this story for the feel of history come alive, for the innovation and thinking sparked and the accomplishments. Wow! Just Wow!

  2. I was 9 or 10 when an organization I had never hear of, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, announced the selection of the first seven astronauts. So many questions in my mind. And I followed NASA’s exploits through the fire that consumed Apollo 1. By the time of the US’s first Lunar landing, I was interested in other things. Like self preservation. I was in a hospital bed, unconscious, in Vietnam when Armstrong said “… a giant step for mankind.”

    Since then, we have, as people, lost the drive to be on the Moon. By this time in my life I thought that we would have people living on or under the Lunar surface, and may have even celebrated the birth of the first Lunar citizen.

    Man was never meant to remain on the surface of the Earth. From the time that the first being looked at the Moon and wondered what it was until now, the human spirit has longed to explore, not only the Moon, but other planets and, as we became knowledgeable, other solar systems.

    When will the dreams I had come to fruition? I’m afraid not in my lifetime.

    So I would ask that X Prize Foundation make it a prize goal for a private concern to transport no less than three people to the Lunar surface with enough supplies for them to live for 1 year, and then to recover them back to Earth. In the process, the three people will learn to work with technology to make their lives sustainable.

    Have at it X Prize Foundation.

  3. Have always enjoyed how you write embracing the reader.

    The reader is the most important part of the story: they get to learn from others’ successes — or failures (but without having to fail)! -rc

  4. In response to “Guy, Big Rock” who outlines his idea for an XPrize challenge: Go to http://www.xprize.org and join their email list. They regularly put out a call for ideas for new XPrize challenges. I am sure that yours would get due consideration. Good Luck!

    It’s not obvious where to sign up: click “Get Involved” in the top-of-the-page menu. -rc

  5. I live in a desert town and would love to have a Skywater device scaled down for one household! No, I’m not off the grid — but it would be nice to be able to afford a garden. Thank you RC for the information/inspiration!

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