Who invented the GPS? People behind the Global Positioning System
That Alexander Graham Bell did not invent the telephone could be proven in court 113 years after the original inventor Antonio Meucci died. Thomas Edison’s name comes to mind when someone says ‘light bulb,’ but it was Humphry Davy who showed for the first time how light can be cast by passing an electric current through a platinum strip. The history of science is riddled with inventions whose ownership is hotly disputed. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is one of them. Who invented the GPS then?
GPS has become such an indispensable part of modern life that we have almost become dependent on it. It has slowly and steadily crept into our cars, ships, aeroplanes, cameras, construction equipment, agricultural machinery, laptops, and of course, smartphones.
And yet, there is a lack of consensus over who should be credited with its creation. At least four different people have been acknowledged to be clearly associated with the invention of this revolutionary technology which was ultimately developed by the US Department of Defense to assist the military forces.
Also read: What would happen if GPS failed?
Roger L. Easton
This former head of Naval Research Laboratory’s space applications branch was the brain behind several engineering applications and technologies that enabled the development of the GPS. A Cold War scientist, Easton worked on technology to track satellites like the Soviet Union’s Sputnik before fathering a time-based navigational concept called TIMATION which utilized passive ranging, circular orbits, and space-borne high precision clocks synchronized to a master clock. Even today, these features are vital in any modern GPS.
In 2004, Easton received the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation from then-President George W. Bush. The honor was bestowed in recognition of “extensive pioneering achievements in spacecraft tracking, navigation, and timing technology that led to the development of the NAVSTAR-Global Positioning System.”
However, it wasn’t until 2010 that National Inventors Hall of Fame recognized Easton’s efforts in the creation of the GPS. In fact, in 2004, two other people were inducted into the Hall of Fame for championing the development of GPS technology.
Who were they? Let’s find out…
The Inventors Hall of Fame credits Dr. Getting for pressing forward “the concept of using an advanced system of satellites to allow the calculation of exquisitely precise positioning data for rapidly moving vehicles, ranging from cars to missiles.”
This founding president of The Aerospace Corporation is also recognized by the American National Academy of Engineering who awarded him the Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering in 2003 for the “concept and development of the GPS”. More specifically, the Academy credits Dr. Getting for his work on “the design of GPS, on its operational value, and on planning, negotiation, and reaching agreements with all the system’s stakeholders was critical to its becoming a reality.
Dr. Getting proposed a three-dimensional, time-difference-of-arrival position-finding system for navigation and by his own admission, “one of the proposals put forth by The Aerospace Corporation… was essentially what is now the GPS.” While acknowledging that the Navy had already developed a very good space navigation system when this proposal was put forward to the Department of Defense, Dr. Getting says, “The conclusion of the Director of Defense Research & Engineering (DDRE) was that a single system was required and that it should be based on the Air Force/Aerospace concept called GPS and developed by the Air Force with cooperation from all three services.”
Interesting read: Why is China messing with our GPS coordinates?
However, Easton’s son, Richard, has vehemently argued that Dr. Getting’s contributions, at best, are limited to supporting the GPS program, and as such, he shouldn’t be credited as being its inventor. Nonetheless, Richard is more accommodating toward sharing credit with the other Hall of Fame inductee who co-received the Charles Stark Draper Prize with Dr. Getting, Bradford Parkinson.
Parkinson was at the forefront of the NAVSTAR GPS Joint Program Office from 1972 to 1978. The Inventors Hall of Fame is clear that “as the program’s first manager, he has been the chief architect of GPS throughout the system’s conception, engineering development, and implementation.” This has also earned Parkinson the title the ‘Father of GPS’.
Parkinson, an Air Force colonel at the time, was tasked to revive a Space and Missile Systems Organization program called 621B that provided altitude, as well as latitude and longitude for navigation purposes. And once the Department of Defense decided that it wanted a joint program developed with the cooperation of all military services, Parkinson was put in charge to pull such a program together.
Parkinson says in a Stanford address that this new program pulled the clocks from Easton’s TIMATION, the signal structure of 621B, and the orbital prediction method from another Navy navigation system called TRANSIT which was developed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Together, these formed the NAVSTAR-Global Positioning System.
Dr. Gladys West
For Dr West, the journey to be recognized as one of the key figures behind the invention of the GPS has been a long one. In 1956, Dr. West started working at the United States Naval Weapons Laboratory. This place was at the forefront of the post-Cold War era space race and home to the Naval Space Surveillance Center until 2004 when the Air Force took over the space reins. A mathematician by education, Dr West would churn numbers and process data from satellites to help determine their exact location.
In December 2018, Dr West was finally inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame – one of Air Force’s Space Commands Highest Honors. At the induction, the Air Force recognized Dr West’s contribution in programming an IBM 7030 ‘Stretch’ computer to deliver “increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.”
Today, there are at least 31 operational GPS satellites orbing the Earth and impacting every aspect of our life.
[Note: The article was updated to recognize Dr Gladys West’s contribution. ]
A short tale about how I wanted to buy satellite imagery and how difficult it was
I have spent over a decade in the geospatial industry and thus know a lot about how things work here but I was shocked when recently buying satellite imagery for a project. I wanted to share with you my experiences and confirm whether it was a rule or an exception.
So I wanted to buy high-resolution satellite data of a few hundred sq. kilometres over Asia. My estimated budget was under 10K USD. The project had a short deadline so I had a maximum time of two weeks to get the data.
I thought that in the third decade of the XXI century and all the marketing budgets from satellite data providers, the whole process will be as simple as finding the data, paying, and downloading the selected imagery. Apparently, the purchase process is much more difficult and it seems that in reality, nobody is interested in selling you the data!
Finding the needle in a haystack
The first challenge is already at the first step of the process, how to find the data I need? As I found out, that there is actually no data catalogues pertaining to which satellite imagery is available and where you can get it! And I realized that, until and unless you are ‘fluent’ in satellite imagery and you have time to learn from your own mistakes, there is absolutely no way around.
The situation was so ridiculous, that I decided to make an open-source project to help things out with data discovery. Here is an excel file that has a list of all the satellite data from the majority of earth observation satellite systems with resolutions and key parameters.
This list also helped me discover that, other than the key players like Airbus and Maxar, there are several smaller players that can offer me the data I need e.g. in China.
The ‘journey’ to buy the data
My project team didn’t have much time left and thus to mitigate the risk, I asked the team to visit the website of every major satellite vendor to see what data is available and verify the purchasing processing. Simultaneously I had already discovered that there was no ‘website system’ to buy the data from the Chinese satellite companies. So, instead, I started exploring my professional network for the same.
Thus, my team started visiting the websites and online portals of Maxar, Harris, Planet, and many others. And to our dismay, no website had the option to buy the data directly. All of them would somehow redirect you to direct contact with the sales department at some point.
So, my team wrote an email to every company, stating the area of interest and other details. And after two days, only Harris replied… (and although we are a few weeks later no other vendor has yet replied to our query).
The time had really flown by and the project deadline was approaching. And soon before the conclusion of the deal, this Harris representative started sending ‘Out Of Office’ emails which pointed out to another person. And this nice guy also gave no reply as apparently there was a typo in the email address provided.
So much happened and a lot of time went into this. But by God’s grace, we hit the right spot and after another 24h got in touch with the right person.
Simultaneously, I was able to contact a few vendors in Europe that were offering Chinese satellite data. I conveyed my area of interest and signed NDAs. Soon we were talking business. But we hit another dead end because they said that it will take another two weeks to get the processed georeferenced data for my area of interest.
Although, as much as I wanted to explore this thread, I just did not have the required time. I had less than a week!
On the other hand, my team was in talks with Harris. We had agreed on the terms and conditions and the prices. Also, we received a payment link the next day. The timer was ticking and it was already 4 days to the deadline!
We were supposed to get the processed data within 1-3 business days (just in time for the deadline). After 3 days, we’ve learnt that the initial time calculation has been underestimated and we need a couple of more days. Eventually, we have received the first data after 5 days and the entire order after 7 days…
To be fair, I must admit that even though my frustrations has been huge, in the end, the communication with the Harris team regarding the delay was good and has been clearly communicated.
This whole experience shocked me! I have learned that there is no one who wants to sell this data. I mean, these companies have set up some really expensive infrastructure, but they’ve clearly done it with huge clients in mind. If I am not the government, military, or Google there is nobody who is interested in me. Nobody wants to sell the data to an individual project.
While I was reading more about the topic, I came across this really interesting post by Joe Morrison. The fact that it is written from the perspective of somebody who is working inside one of these big vendors, makes it special. I recommend you read this post.