In his electronic book, Here We Are, Jim Carrier, author of several books including the well-received The Ship and the Storm about the 1998 loss of Windjammer Cruises’ 282-foot schooner Fantome to Hurricane Mitch, briefly recounts the history of the Navstar Global Positioning System, simply known today as GPS.
Appropriate to the electronic technology he describes, Carrier’s work is available only as an eBook and makes use of numerous links to online information. His links act in some ways as valuable footnotes, which should be the point of links in eBooks and online essays; however, I found that links to commonplace names such as “Columbus,” “sextant,” “Cold War,” and “Soviet Union” distracted my reading.
The Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957 marked the beginning of GPS technology and a worldwide revolution in navigation. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University employed the Doppler effect to track Sputnik and then reversed the concept and used known satellite orbits to locate their position. The Navy quickly saw the value of this for its nuclear submarine fleet and contracted with Johns Hopkins to build Doppler-tone satellites. In 1959, the Transit system, precursor to today’s GPS, was launched, and within a few years the military developed atomic-clock-based satellite navigation systems. “By 1972,” writes Carrier, “there were, by one estimate, 47 different U.S. military navigation satellites in orbit or on the drawing boards.”
Inter-service bickering threatened to kill space-based navigation development, but during a short tenure as Deputy Secretary of Defense (1969-1971), David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, created a joint program office in the Department of Defense to end the inter-service dissension. In 1973, Air Force Colonel Bradford Parkinson was appointed to head the office, and he is credited with saving space-based navigation and choosing the best technology from the top three contenders. It was named Navstar and, in 1978, the first satellite of the new system was launched.
GPS backers struggled to compete with military brass wanting funding for weapons during the Carter years, but eventually the Air Force adopted and funded GPS because of its efficacy in putting bombs on target. In 1983, the downing of Korean Air Line flight 007 by Soviet war planes prompted President Reagan to offer GPS to the world’s airlines and the launching of additional satellites began in earnest in 1989, just in time for the first Gulf War to prove beyond doubt GPS’s military value.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs tapped into GPS. Charlie Trimble founded Trimble, Inc., in 1978, which became the leader in developing products harnessing GPS to commercial and consumer uses as well as to military use. In 1989, Garmin opened its first offices in Lenexa, Kansas, and a year later introduced the first marine GPS, a panel-mounted unit priced at $2,500 that generated 5,000 orders at that year’s International Marine Technology Exposition in Chicago.
In 1994, the U.S. government officially declared that the GPS system was fully operational. Already, GPS receiver prices were falling, and its use was becoming commonplace. Carrier concludes his brief history with a look at the current operation of GPS and an array of examples of how GPS has impacted society.
While sailors may wish that Here We Are devoted more space to GPS in the maritime world, Carrier makes clear that GPS revolutionized marine navigation. I am sure he would agree with Tim Bartlett of Sail Magazine that, with GPS, “for the first time in history, ordinary sailors could quickly, easily, reliably, and affordably fix their position at the push of a button, no matter what the conditions.” And, perhaps the history of GPS in sailing is for another book to explore.
Here We Are: The History, Meaning and Magic of GPS by Jim Carrier (New Word City, Inc. 2011, 29 pages)