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.

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