The term crowdsourcing has dramatically risen in prominence over the last five years. Coined in 2006, crowdsourcing described a growing movement that, at the time, represented only a tiny sliver of the economy. Now, crowdsourcing as a business model has ballooned to such size that the term alone can’t capture the diverse segments within it.
For that reason, we’ve seen a rise in spin-off terms used to distinguish different types of crowdsourcing, ranging from crowdfunding (crowd-based financing) to curated crowdsourcing (selectively choosing members of a “crowd” for a crowdsourcing activity). As the term becomes more and more commonplace, we should take a moment to recognize that prior to inventing the word, the act of crowdsourcing was just as important, and responsible for some of the most incredible breakthroughs in human history.
Without the ambitious innovation of the crowd, we wouldn’t have modern shipping, canned soup, or even margarine. Yes, each of these discoveries were made through bounties being cast to an open crowd in search of a solution.
Means of figuring out longitude and latitude were easy enough in the 1700s, that was as long as you were on dry land. For ships at sea, on the other hand, it was nearly impossible, leading to thousands of lives lost in shipwrecks. Every great western nation in the 17th and 18th century offered
bounties for a solution to the problem from the Spanish King to the Dutch merchants.It took 150 years, but a crowdsourced solution was finally found, and one that really underscores the power of crowdsourcing itself. It came from a relatively uneducated English watchmaker by the name of John Harrison.
By allowing anyone to participate in solving the problem, a solution was found for a puzzle that had baffled some of the brightest minds in history (even Galileo!). In the end, it was found in someone who would never have been tapped to solve it to begin with.
While canning food may not seem as important as preventing the pre-industrial globe’s primary means of transportation from running aground, it may in fact be more important.
When Napoleon began his invasion of Europe in the 18th century he quickly ran into the problem of feeding his army once they left the safety and abundant food found on French farms. To solve the problem, he established a prize of 12,000 francs for the most innovative and effective means of staving off the troop’s hunger. After a few years of experimentation, Nicolas Appert submitted the winning solution: boiling wax sealed jars to preserve food from spoiling. Once again, it was due to the simple act of turning away from one team to a diverse collection of individuals to source the idea that would change modern food production.
Canning food wasn’t the last time the Napoleon family would crowdsource a solution through a contest. When Napoleon III saw the appetite of his military and nation was surpassing production of butter, he once again set a prize for the first to develop a suitable supplement to replace this staple of the French diet.
In 1869, a French chemist by the name of Hippolyte Mege-Mouries found that melted down fat and milk could make a satisfactory replacement for butter. He named it oleomargarine, later shortened to margarine. Interestingly enough, Mouries later sold the patent to the company Jurgens, which later merged with another company to become Unilever–a company that has been quick to adopt creative crowdsourcing in recent years.
Making the Connection
While longitude and canned vegetables may not seem like essential parts of your life today, there is little doubt one of your forebears probably depended on them to survive. There are far more examples that could be used to illustrate the power of the crowd, but few that may have changed the world we live in more than these three. So while the term “crowdsourcing” may only now be gaining prominence and household recognition, it has been shaping the world around us for a very long time.