Kickstarter Before Kickstarter

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In 1713, Alexander Pope set out to translate 15,693 lines of ancient Greek poetry into English. It took five long years to get the six volumes right, but the result was worth the wait: a translation of Homer’s Iliad that endures to this day. How did Pope go about getting this project off the ground? Turns out he kind of Kickstarted it.

A year later, Pope crafted his pitch:

“This Work shall be printed in six Volumes in Quarto, on the finest Paper, and on a letter new Cast on purpose; with Ornaments and initial Letters engraven on Copper,” he wrote.

In exchange for a shout-out in the acknowledgements, an early edition of the book, and the delight of helping to bring a new creative work into the world, 750 subscribers pledged two gold guineas to support Pope’s effort before he put pen to paper. They were listed in an early edition of the book:

University of Rochester
University of Rochester

Monarchs and the Medici get a lot of credit for their role as patrons and rightfully so. Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on commission from Pope Julius II. Leonardo da Vinci’s "The Last Supper" was backed by the Duke of Milan. Galileo named Jupiter’s moons the “Medicean stars” for his benefactors. But Alexander Pope invited a broader audience to be a part of creating his work.

In 1783, Mozart took a similar path. He wanted to perform three recently composed piano concertos in a Viennese concert hall, and he published an invitation to prospective backers offering manuscripts to those who pledged:

“These three concertos, which can be performed with full orchestra including wind instruments, or only a quattro, that is with 2 violins, 1 viola and violoncello, will be available at the beginning of April to those who have subscribed for them (beautifully copied, and supervised by the composer himself).”

Alas, not all projects reach their funding goals, and Mozart fell short. A year later he tried again, and 176 backers pledged enough to bring his concertos to life. He thanked them in the concertos' manuscript:

Cornell University Library
Cornell University Library

In 1885, arguably the most ambitious project of all to find funding this way began. France was at work on a statue of the Roman goddess of freedom to give to the United States to celebrate its centennial. But the Statue of Liberty had no pedestal on which to stand in New York Harbor. Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World, launched a project for the construction of one.

The Statue of Liberty Club
The Statue of Liberty Club

Pulitzer published the project in his newspaper and offered rewards to supporters. For $1 a backer would get a six-inch statuette of Lady Liberty. More than 120,000 people from around the world pledged $102,006 to the project.

For centuries, artists and patrons experimented with the model that Kickstarter champions today. The biggest difference between then and now? The web makes the model exponentially more dynamic and accessible to all. Sometimes what seems new is actually very old.

We didn’t know about these examples when we started Kickstarter, but it was reassuring to discover them. Not only that the likes of Mozart used this model, but that we've always wanted to help each other bring creative works to life. That's what we strongly believed when we launched Kickstarter, and that's what's happening today.

    1. Alex Najdek on

      This is so cool. I had no idea that crowdfunding had a history. It's kind of heartwarming.

    2. Dan Balkwill on

      What an awesome 'reward'... Miniature Statue Of Liberty! I wonder how many of these still exist?

    3. Jonas Navickas on

      Here's to history repeating itself!

    4. Kevin Clark on

      Pulitzer also published letters from backers in his newspaper. They were ADORABLE.

    5. Piers Duruz | on

      Good ideas tend to repeat themselves. :)

      Clearly crowdfunding has always eben with us, but it's basically been Kickstarter taking it to the internet that has really made it blow up.

      There's still a lot of growth ahead, both in reaching new people, but also in helping people to understand how to do crowfunding right. Genuinely. Reaching the people who want to hear about what they're doing and in a way that is effective and non spammy.

      Currently, there are still too many people thinking that it's just "put up a page and watch the dollars come rolling in." In fact, just today I talked to someone with a current Kickstarter convinced that Kickstarter is a scam, because their unpromoted project with a terrible video only netted them $500 funding (out of about 7k).

      If crowdfunding has been around this long, you'd think people would have gotten the hang of it by now! It will be fascinating to see where it goes in the next 10 years, especially when you realize Kickstarter has only been around for a few years, and look at what hasm already been accomplished...

    6. Backercamp

      So cool

    7. Jana on

      These are great examples of crowdfunding! I wonder if there are even more...

    8. Luis Rodriguez on

      It is a great Concept. In more recent times, that is how PBS essentially works.

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      Johnny5000 on

      For mor examples you could also google "Assurance Contract" (this is what a Kickstarter Pledge Drive essentially is, in legal speak.)

    10. Matt Otto on

      That is all very cool, makes me think I could do a KS…but that sounds very scary, maybe you could give us tops on dos and don’ts of KS campaigns?

    11. Tara Mackey on

      This is absolutely amazing. I brought up a few of these people - and a few others - Edison, Ford & Franklin, during my early days speaking with people before launch! I'm hoping articles like this continue to shed some light onto what we're doing, and how long it's been around for! Thanks KS! xo

    12. J.J. Fecik on

      Thank you Kickstarter! I know it has been said so many times already but it is just AMAZING all that is happening here & it is so cool to see it has a history!

    13. Stanley N Lozowski on

      I never realized this, but during the Centennial years of the US Civil War (1961-1965), the group responsible for restoring and rebuilding the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia did it with Kickstarter type project. As a student of early American architecture (the groups goal was to turn the White House of the Confederacy building into a museum), I donated $100/month for a year towards the project...

    14. Dale Taylor on

      You left out Johnathan Swift's 1728 campaign to raise money for a potato salad recipe.

    15. Benedict Jones on

      NO....WAYY!!! Ultra-cool story...and even cooler is that my Dad's fabled stories of my great Grandfather getting one of these statues is actually true lol I had never known the origin of them. It's being conserved by a museum now!! Can't wait to actually see it :)

    16. Deborah Landry on

      It would be cool if we could find a original model of the statue. Anyone out there see it.

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      Steven Yeung on

      The history of crowdfunding, great post. So my shipment of mt plegde was just delayed for another months is nothing compared to Iliad.

    18. Morty Mcfly on

      Most amazing thing in this thread is that a lot of people genuinely believe Kickstarter invented the quid pro quo princple. That's adorable.

    19. Missing avatar

      Namaku Keren on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.

    20. Missing avatar

      Doa Ibu Tersayang on

      This comment has been removed by Kickstarter.