Geek Trivia: Skies on the prize

Who was the first person to offer a prize for establishing communications with another planet, an X Prize-style contest that was established decades before the Pioneer plaque, the WOW signal, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence?

Who was the first person to offer a prize for establishing communications with another planet, an X Prize-style contest that was established decades before the Pioneer plaque, the WOW signal, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence?

The answer is Clara Gouget Guzman, a patroness of the French Academy of Science who offered a 100,000-franc prize to "the person of whatever nation who will find the means within the next ten years of communicating with a star and of receiving a response." She named the prize after her late son, Pierre, whereafter it was known as the Pierre Guzman Prize or the Prix Guzman. The Guzman Prize was announced in 1900, though it is generally believed the 10-year deadline was tacitly ignored by the Guzman estate. So, if anybody out there is sitting on a functioning ansible and a list of extraterrestrial pen pals, step up and snag your cash payout.

To earn the Prix Guzman, however, you'll have to beat out some pretty heady company.

None other than Nikola Tesla wrote a letter to the editor of Electrical World in 1921, wherein the genius of electromagnetism asserted this: "Irrespective of astronomical and electrical evidences, such as have been obtained by the late Percival Lowell and myself, there is a solid foundation for a systematic attempt to establish communication with one of our heavenly neighbors, as Mars, which through some inventions of mine is reduced to a comparatively simple problem of electrical engineering."

Sixteen years later, Tesla reported to that same magazine that, "I am expecting to put before the Institute of France an accurate description of the devices with data and calculations and claim the Pierre Guzman prize of 100,000 francs for means of communication with other worlds, feeling perfectly sure that it will be awarded to me. The money, of course, is a trifling consideration, but for the great historical honor of being the first to achieve this miracle I would be almost willing to give my life."

Tesla never got the prize, so you'll have to do him one better. Even though we live in a world where you can beam a message into space for $3.99 a minute, an honest sci-fi confab with beings from another planet still eludes us.

That makes the Prix Guzman not just an auspicious ongoing engineering enticement, but a galvanizing gulp of galactic Geek Trivia.

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