The Challenge: The General Prize Essay contest is perhaps the oldest continuously conducted writing contest in the entire United States. The Institute began work on the Contest in 1878 under the leadership of the most recognized and celebrated Naval Strategist in United States history, Alfred Thayer Mahan, then the Chairman of the Naval Institute. The original rules adopted by resolution of the Board were:
- The contest was open to all persons eligible for membership (including those already members) in the Institute
- The contest would be conducted on a yearly basis
- The Institute would hold secret author names until after the judging was completed
- The judging to be done by "three gentlemen of distinguished professional attainments"
- The member whose paper was judged the best would receive " . . . a cash prize of $100, a gold medal of $50 value (winner could elect to take additional cash instead) and a Life membership in the Naval Institute"
- The winning essay to be published in the Proceedings
The roster of previous winners is a Who's Who of distinguished naval Leaders starting with Mahan himself and including CDR Bradley Fisk, LT Ernest J. King, USN; LCDR Dudley Knox; LCDR J.K. Holloway, Jr., and Stavridis.
History of the General Prize: Since 1879 The Naval Institute flagship essay contest has been the General Prize. LCDR Allan D. Brown, USN first proposed the contest in May of 1878. The Contest was incorporated into the Naval Institute Constitution in 1884. Since that time the Contest has undergone regular changes in both name and process as succeeding Boards of the Naval Institute sought to maintain its relevance and currency.
The reasoning for such a contest was in response to similar initiatives in the British and French Navies. These powerful role models for the young American Navy placed great import on writing to the extent that every French Navy officer standing for promotion would have his essays included as part of his evaluation. Regardless, it was a bold project for a young and struggling professional association with only 250 total members.
The subject for the 1st contest would ring as important today as it did in 1879: Naval Education for Officers and Men. There were 10 entries, all written in longhand. The 10 essays were all identified by motto and the judges even those many years ago were careful to include a disclaimer that "they did not necessarily approve the opinions and proposals contained in the preferred essays, but had chosen those most thoughtful...in substance and most accurate in style."
Ironically, the first winner was none other than the same LCDR Brown who had originally proposed having the contest. Accordingly, he was awarded a gold medal, a $100 cash prize and a Life membership (then valued at $30) and his winning essay appeared in Proceedings.
In 1890 the Board unanimously rejected the only three essays submitted as unworthy and immediately thereafter added a new section to the constitution authorizing the Board to refuse to award the Prize if no essay was worthy.
The General Prize Today: Today the Prize continues in its 135th consecutive year. The Naval Institute Constitution still provides for the Board of Directors to approve and support the Essay program of which the General Prize is the Flagship. The rules under which the contest is conducted reflect the proud history of the General Prize.
* * CONTEST HIGHLIGHTS * *
- The contest remains open to all persons eligible for membership (including those already members) in the Institute.
- The contest is conducted on a yearly basis for the 12 months from September to following September of the Award Year with all essays purchased by the Institute in this period eligible for the Prize.
- Today the judging is done by the Senior Editorial Staff of the Institute – certainly a worthy successor to the "three gentlemen of distinguished professional attainments;"
- The winning essay to be published in the Proceedings.
- 1st Prize - $5,000 + Life Membership + Gold Medal
- 2nd Prize - $2,500 + One-Year Membership + Silver Medal
- 3rd Prize - $1,500 (Two awards) + One-Year Membership + Bronze Medal
Ceremony: Prizewinners are brought to Annapolis (Washington DC) in October of each year for a special presentation at the annual invitation-only Naval Institute Honors Night, celebrating the birthday of the Institute and all those who have contributed to our Mission during the year.