It has become common for exceptional achievements, including within science, to be rewarded with a prize medal. The ubiquity of prize medals for science today means that the history of the first, the Copley Medal, has been overlooked. Rather than simply noting the exploits of famous winners – such as Franklin, Priestley and Herschel – this talk explores the creation of a novelty and the meaning of medals to the Royal Society’s 18th-century fellows. The scheme required an investment of time, money, thought and skill, and the creation of a design that borrowed from contemporary ideas about experimental philosophy, antiquarianism and Freemasonry. The Copley Medal did not arrive fully formed as a reward system, but accrued meaning and value from its associations.