Opening lines of Patrick O’Brian’s very fine book “H.M.S Surprise”:
But I put it to you, my lord, that prize-money is of essential importance to the Navy. The possibility, however remote, of making a fortune by some brilliant stroke is an unparalleled spur to the diligence, the activity, and the unremitting attention of every man afloat.
They’re talking about the British Navy, during Admiral Lord Nelson’s heyday around 1800. Ship’s officers and crew were rewarded, sometime substantially, when they captured enemy war and merchant ships. Capturing a prize required skill and luck, and was a rare and random event, but a real motivator.
Just like starting a software company.
The Royal Navy was a very important institution at the time, projecting power and keeping Napoleon at bay. Luckily for England it was also very effective, despite all the political maneuvering, and the inefficiencies imposed by an hereditary aristocracy.
The work was hard, the hours were long, and the women were scarce.