Mine would say, “How do I love thee, GPS?”
Sciku: “My True Compass”
Without you, I’m lost,
Wandering off course, afraid,
Aching for guidance.
My parents were famous for getting lost. They once drove two hours east instead of two hours south before they noticed they were near unfamiliar towns.
I inherited what I call “directional impairment.” If I look at a map and highlight my route, I can tell you which direction I’m heading, but without visuals, I have no internal compass guiding me and end up lost and confused.
When we ran a business, panic would strike the minute someone called and said, “We’re coming west on this road, and we need directions from there.” I would hand the phone off to one of my far better-equipped employees to handle any direction questions because if I tried to tell them, I would literally lose customers.
So I am inordinately grateful for the modern convenience of GPS, the Global Positioning System that politely narrates directions and gets me where I need to go whether I’m walking or driving, elated that the technology has come so far.
From Submarines to SUVs
You may not know that something you use every day was involved in spycraft.
GPS all started with the launch of Russia’s Sputnik I in 1957 and the beginning of the Space Race. The United States wanted to know where Russia’s satellite was, so MIT scientists stepped in and figured out a way to track it by listening to its radio beeps. The closer it was, the more frequently they could hear the “beeps.” The farther away it was, the more time in between the sounds. Their discovery formed the basis for The Doppler Effect, a principle that worked for tracking satellites and military vessels.
Doppler technology evolved and became an important element of spycraft and military technology.
Less than two years after Sputnik, America was using Doppler technology to track submarines.
In 1978, twenty years after the Sputnik launch, the United States launched eleven test satellites as part of a “Block 1” GPS program.
Enter Civilians Into What Had Been a Military World
When a civilian company, Magellan designed a portable GPS system in 1989, it weighed 1.5 lbs, worked only for a couple of hours before its battery gave out, and cost more than $3000 dollars. Still, it was a great tool for commercial companies who could afford it.
By 1990, the use of civilian GPS was so prominent that the U.S. Department of Defense worried our enemies could too easily attain information using it, so they put into effect “Selective Availability,” which purposely decreased the accuracy of the system.
It wasn’t until a decade later when Selective Availability was ended, that companies began experimenting with GPS on mobile devices, ultimately progressing to the easy-access-built-in, much more accurate, GPS of many vehicles.
GPS went from tracking military satellites and submarines to being standard equipment for our SUVs.
Who Should We Thank for GPS?
Like many scientific advancements, it’s hard to pin down one creator. GPS is no exception. Several people have been given credit.
Roger Easton, who worked for the Naval Research Laboratory’s space applications branch, engineered several programs that were fundamental to GPS, most notably something called “timation.” Timation involved high precision, synchronized clocks, and the calculation of circular orbits and passive ranging. (I am continually in awe of the brainpower of others, particularly scientists, who can conceptualize abstract, far-away principles.) Easton was belatedly given credit for the creation of GPS in 2010 after two other people had been inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2004: Bradford Parkinson and Dr. Ivan Getting.
Some dispute exists over giving credit for the GPPS to Dr. Ivan Getting, the founding president of The Aerospace Corporation. Roger Easton’s son, Richard, disputes that he is an “inventor” of GPS. Instead, Easton argues that Getting provided support for GPS in his proposal of “a three-dimensional, time-difference-of arrival-position-finding system for navigation.” (Personally, I think he needed a copywriter to come up with a better title for his plan!)
Bradford Parkinson was the first manager of NAVSTAR, the joint program that pulled together all branches of the military. Parkinson is called “The Father of GPS,” and worked on a program called 621B that included adding altitude, latitude, and longitude for navigation.
But I Am Most Thankful to Dr. Gladys West
One of the best things about being a writer is the cool discoveries I make every day. Today it was that one of the people credited — without a doubt — with developing the modern GPS system is Dr. Gladys West.
Gladys West was not one of the women highlighted in the film, Hidden Figures, but she could have been. She was the fourth black employee hired by the U.S. Naval Weapons Lab in 1956 where she worked for forty-two until she retired in 1998.
Dr. West was known as one of the “human computers.” She could crunch numbers and process data in her head. Her work programmed an IBM “Stretch,” 7030 computer with finite calculations that enabled her to produce an accurate optimized “geodetic ” model of the earth.
I had to look it up. Geodetic is the adjective form of geodesy:
“The science of accurately measuring and understanding the Earth’s geometric shape, orientation in space, and gravity field. … Geodesists must accurately define the coordinates of points on the surface of the Earth in a consistent manner.”
Dr. West’s accurate model of the earth was essential for GPS. Like Roger Easton, Dr. West did not receive credit for her work on GPS until 2008 when she was entered into The Air Force Space & Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. It is one of the highest honors she could have earned.
Thank you, Dr. West, for helping me find my way and for delighting me with discovering your role during Women’s History Month.
The Sky Above Us
When we click on our phone to get directions from Waze or Google Maps, or when we touch a screen in our vehicle, we probably don’t even consider how we get GPS.
We don’t consider that what we’re using is the product of twenty-nine operational satellites in what the United States calls its GPS “constellation.”
We probably don’t even think about how far the technology has come, from when it was the beginning — the tracking of Sputnik’s radio signals — to its current complex interaction between dozens of satellites orbiting the earth and sending information back to millions of computers.
We never really think about the brainpower, the mathematics, the engineering, the logistics, and the years of development spent in creating a Global Positioning System that makes our lives easier.
We might never know the people who made it possible, but if I could thank them, I would.
My Love Letter to Technology Would Say This:
“How do I love thee, GPS?
Let me count the ways…”
- Before you, I made wrong turns. I veered down side roads and ended in blind alleys. I spent hours back-tracking the asphalt roadways, always searching. With you, I was lost, but now am found, destined to find my place in the world.
- You never give up on me, patiently recalculating and re-routing my wrong moves. You come running to me any time of the day or night. You never get sick. you don’t take days off. You are a paragon of technological reliability.
- You are beautiful, flashing your brilliant colored screens into my adoring eyes. Green. Yellow. Winding blue lines guiding me as surely as veins toward my heart. I’ve never known a more confident compass or a more lovely locator.
- Your voice! Ah, your dulcet tones. You beckon me in that “come-hither” tone. “Get into the left lane. Be prepared to turn. Merge into the right lane.” You whisper complicity, “Your destination is ahead.” The sound of your wooing brings me to geographic ecstasy as soon as I arrive, then leaves me weak with the relief of stress.
Oh, GPS, how I love you, the best invention of the modern world!