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Wood Stove Design Challenge

Why a Wood Stove Technology Challenge?

Spurring Innovation

Technology competitions, also known as inducement prizes, have been used as a tool to stimulate innovation since at least the 16th century, when the King of Spain offered a prize of $6,000 gold ducats - plus $2,000 more a year for life - to the person who could devise a way of finding longitude at sea. At the time, no Spaniard was able to do it, but a similar contest offered by the British Parliament in 1714 produced John Harrison's famous marine chronometer.

There is a healthy debate about when and which technology competitions produce genuine innovation and when they just serve to increase public interest in an issue or help to build communities around finding solutions. Historically, many competitions have been shown to result in greater technological innovation. Liam Brunt and his team at the Norwegian School of Economics found a link between the number of prizes offered and the number of patents awarded for agricultural innovation in 19th century Britain. And Priscilla Brewster speculated that a 1796 United States wood stove competition, despite receiving only four entries, sparked enough interest in wood combustion technology to launch a surge of new patents.

Community Building

According to a 2010 article in the Economist, "prizes also help form new alliances." Prizes can bring together people from different institutions and disciplines who normally would not interact with each other and produce lasting alliances. The 2009 contest sponsored by Netflix was won by a team of seven people who collaborated online and only met each other when they collected their winnings.

Attract Publicity

Prizes generate public enthusiasm and raise the profile of the technology featured. Prizes also can influence consumer attitudes and behavior. Even the announcement of a prize, like building a car that can get 100 mpg, can influence perceptions and expectations. Consumers are more likely to find a product that has proven its worth in a competition worthy of their purchase. And since the tests are objective and impartial, they add another layer of legitimacy to the claims made by manufacturers and inventors.

Train and Educate Future Innovators

Contests help provide technical skills and training for students and others interested in that field of innovation. The education and skill-building of young, clean energy engineers are among the Solar Decathlon’s main goals. The Decathlon organizers believes that the future of clean energy, whether it is solar or wood heat, depends on the enthusiastic participation of the younger generation.

Bring Attention to a Neglected Issue

Another benefit to contests is that they help raise the profile of an issue to the public or policy makers. This is the rationale behind several prizes, such as the ongoing Breant Prize to cure cholera launched in 1854 and the Advanced Market Commitment for a pneumococcal vaccine announced in 2007. Many technology competitions serve humanitarian purpose as well.

Famous Technology Challenges

Historically, there have been many challenges and prizes designed to spur technological innovation. Here are a few of the most famous highlights:

  • 1714 - The government of the U.K. offers a £20,000 prize to discover a method for finding longitude at sea. The award went to John Harrison and his marine clock that could determine longitude accurately.

  • 1810 - Napoleon offers a $1,000,000 Livres prize for the best innovation of a Flax Spinning Machine. The winner, Philippe de Girard, never received the money (due to the collapse of the French monarchy) but had his design patented in England.

  • 1980 - The Edward Fredkin prize of $100,000 is extended to IBM's Deep Blue Chess team for successfully creating a program that could beat a world-reigning chess champion.

  • 1994 - The Super Efficient Refrigerator Program Board launches a $30 million competition to design a highly efficient, chlorofluorocarbon-free refrigerator. The winner was Whirlpool Corporation.

  • 2002 - The U.S. Department of Energy holds the first Solar Decathlon. Fourteen college teams compete to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered home. The University of Colorado receives first place.

  • 2007 - Automotive X PRIZE of $10 million is offered for a marketable car that could get 100 mpg. In 2010, the finalists were judged and began undergoing the validation process.

Other Stove Competitions
  • 1783 - During a period of extreme cold in Europe known as the "Little Ice Age," Frederick the Great of Prussia holds a contest for the masonry oven that could provide the most heat for the least amount of wood. Johann Paul Baumer wins in 1784 with a design that used outside air for combustion and "featured controllable air intake and a flue gas flap, and well-matched grating size, fire capacity and external surfaces".

  • 1796 - A fuel crisis prompts the American Philosophical Society to offer a $60 prize for the "best construction or improvement of stoves." The contest received four entries.

  • 1826 - The Franklin Institute offers a contest for the best cookstove design of the year. Mine owners chip in an additional $20 to the Institute's $100 prize.

  • 1970s - Three friends from New England hold a competition among themselves to build the best wood stove. The winner, Dick Travers, would later become head of the Elm Stove Company. Fellow contestant Duncan Syme would form Vermont Castings.

  • 1991 - The Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculutre sponsored a competition for small sized automatically fed chip burners of a maximum power output of 15 kW. 16 furnaces were tested with a standardized method including thermal properties, emissions, comfort and security. The winning boiler, made by Fröling, had a thermal efficiency of 85%.

  • 2010 - The X PRIZE Foundation teams up with the Indian's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi to announce a major prize for clean-burning, efficient cookstoves.


Slawinski, Nadia. (2011). "The Kachelofen: Its Time has Come, Again." Ceramic Arts Daily:

Radkau, Joachim. (2012). Wood: A History. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK. Pg. 213. A7nt3CNbTH&sig=3adPfDW9GLXFgEj2ilgTmpTE7W8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=h8cFT83mDcL5ggeUn7T9BA &ved=0CEwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Baumer%20stove%201764&f=false

Brewer, Priscilla J. (2000). From Fireplace to Cookstove: Technology and the Domestic Ideal in America. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse: NY.

Economist (2010). "And the winner is..."

Masters, William A. & Delbecq, Benoit. (2008). "Accelerating Innovation with Prize Rewards."

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