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The History of GPS

What would our Future is Analogue series be without a story on how creative enterprises can unexpected lead to great results? Here's a brief history of the GPS!

Photo by makeyuu

It’s hard to think that the convenience we enjoy everyday with our cars, cellphones and even in our LC-A kits in last year’s LOMO LC-A Race was once a top secret, hi-tech technology exclusive to the US’ Department of Defense!

It didn’t happen overnight though, as the Global Positioning System or GPS that we know today is the product of years and years and billions of dollars of research and development. It all started way back in 1951 when the Air Force asked Dr. Ivan Getting for a proposed guidance system. From this request, Dr. Getting developed the first three-dimensional, position-finding system based on time difference of arrival. This system became the basis for the future GPS.

Fast forward to 1957 when Russia launched the Sputnik satellite off in to space. After the launch, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) observed that as the satellite orbited the planet, its signal became weaker the farther it got, and stronger as it got closer. With this, they were able to determine exactly where the satellite was, by using its signal strength alone!

The first atomic clock. Photo from marcdatabase.com

On another front, scientists were busy studying time. They sought a way to measure time in the most accurate way possible. And so, they developed the Atomic Clock, a super-accurate device that measures the time within a billionth of a second. Thus, the Atomic Clocks were born. With these atomic clocks, scientists and engineers discovered that there were slight discrepancies in time around the globe. They began to position the clocks everywhere from Mount Everest to the Gobi Desert and then looked for tiny differences in the time in each of the locations. This information helped confirm Einstein’s view of the universe and would soon become a key part of satellite technology.

The following years would have the US military launching satellites off into space and strategically positioning them. Through the help of these satellites, and with the lessons from Sputnik, they were able to realize that given enough satellites positioned correctly, you can map out the whole earth and be able to pinpoint exact locations over the globe! This was of course, all classified information until 1983 when President Ronald Reagan declassified GPS and made it available for public use. And thus, the modern GPS was born! Since then, advancements in technology have been able to improve it further, as you can probably see with your phone or the GPS in your car. Who knew that these seemingly random events would have produced such an important aspect of today’s technology right?

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written by cruzron

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This is the original article written in: English. It is also available in: 中文(繁體版), Português, Spanish & Deutsch.