The Man Who Created GPS

Roger Easton spearheaded the creation of the satellite system that lets us know where on Earth we are.
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Roger Easton was a key figure in the development of the Global Positioning System, GPS, a ubiquitous feature of modern life. 

What began as a way of tracking satellites like Sputnik became a way for satellites to track us here on the surface of Earth. 

Easton's experiments with satellite tracking began in 1964, as the country tried to figure out what exactly was orbiting the Earth. Ten years later, he was granted a patent for "Navigation System Using Satellites and Passive Ranging Techniques." His system incorporated the main features of modern GPS, and because he was a scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory, the technology gave the United States a Cold War military advantage. 

Still, I really wish GPS  had kept Easton's original name for the technology, Timation for Time-Navigation.

"A problem with synchronizing the timing of the tracking stations led Easton to the idea of putting highly accurate clocks in multiple satellites which could also be used to determine the precise location of someone on the ground. He called this system Timation for Time-Navigation. Following the origin and development of the NRL time-based navigation system, select features were adopted by the Department of Defense (DoD) in the early 1970s and the system renamed the Global Positioning System, or GPS."

Easton died last month at the age of 93. If and when self-driving cars become a mainstream reality, just know that they would be unthinkable without GPS and all the work like Easton's that's bundled inside of it.

 


This is one of today's 5 Intriguing Things, my daily curated look at our world's futures. You can read the full newsletter and get all five links delivered to your inbox each morning by subscribing here.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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