The Brains Behind the Invention of GPS

The Global Positioning System, or GPS, is a tool that we use in our everyday lives. It relies on 31 operational GPS satellites traveling around the Earth 24/7 to provide us with on-demand directions, events and restaurant recommendations based on location, and even the correct time on our smartphones and computers. Who do we have to thank for this service? Well, hundreds of people, but here are four important contributors who stick out: Roger L. Easton, Bradford Parkinson, Ivan Getting, and Gladys West.

Roger Easton (Photo from National Science and Technology Medals Foundation)

Let’s begin with Roger L. Easton, also known as “The Father of GPS.” He began as a physicist in 1943 at the Naval Research Laboratory, where he worked for 37 years, and then retired as the head of the Space Applications Branch.

During his time as a Cold War scientist, he helped build satellite-tracking technology like the Soviet Union’s Sputnik. He then developed TIMATION, a “time-based navigational concept” that made use of “passive ranging, circular orbits, and space-borne high precision clocks synchronized to a master clock,” (Editor, 2017).

Easton’s inventions received many awards, including the Thomas L. Thurlow navigation award for TIMATION in 1978. In 1993, he received recognition as a part of the GPS team that received the Robert J. Collier Trophy aviation award (Pearlman, 2014). In 2004, he received the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation from George W. Bush. The award was given in recognition of “extensive pioneering achievements in spacecraft tracking, navigation, and timing technology that led to the development of the NAVSTAR-Global Positioning System” (Editor, 2017).

He passed away at the age of 93 in 2014.

Above: Roger Easton (third from left) with astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ken Mattingly, Ronald Evans, Robert Crippen and Joseph Kerwin at the Naval Research Laboratory in 1975 (Photo from Collectspace.com)

Another man who shares the title, “Father of GPS,” is Bradford Parkinson, a retired professor from Stanford University’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. The National Inventors Hall of Fame declared that Parkinson was “the chief architect of GPS throughout the system’s conception, engineering development, and implementation.”

Bradford Parkinson (Photo from nae.edu)

He first became involved in GPS when he was an advocate for it during his time as an Air Force Colonel. He was assigned to restore 621B, a Space and Missile Systems Organization program that provided altitude, latitude, and longitude for navigational purposes. Eventually, the Department of Defense announced that it “wanted a joint program developed with the cooperation of all military services,” (Editor, 2017). Parkinson became the first Director of the GPS Joint Program Office.

Parkinson stated that the joint program formed the NAVSTAR-Global Positioning System by using the clocks from Easton’s TIMATION, the signal structure from 621b, and an orbital prediction method from TRANSIT, another Navy navigation system that was actually the first satellite navigation system used operationally (Editor, 2017).

He co-wrote many technical papers as well as his AIAA award-winning two-volume set titled Global Positioning System: Theory and Applications.

He won a handful of awards including the IEEE Medal of Honor and the Draper Prize of the National Academy of Engineering, which some consider the “Engineering Nobel” (“Bradford Parkinson,” n.d.). He is now 83 years old and lives in San Luis Obispo, California.

MIT Professor, Ivan Getting working in his laboratory. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The third piece to this GPS puzzle is a man named Ivan Getting, the founding president of The Aerospace Corporation, a military research and development company in California.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame credited him for evolving “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.”

His idea for GPS was to “use the electronic signals from satellites on fixed orbits around planet Earth to provide positioning data that could be received by computer systems, also on Earth” (Asiado, n.d.).

He received the U.S. Medal of Merit in 1948, the Air Force Exceptional Service Award in 1960, the IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Pioneer Award in 1975, and the Kitty Hawk Award in 1975 (“Ivan Getting,” n.d.).

In 2003, he also was awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize from the National Academy of Engineering for the “concept and development of the GPS.” NAE specifically acknowledged Getting’s 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. Ivan A. Getting,” 2003).

He passed away in October of 2003 at the age of 91 in his home in Coronado, California.

Gladys West (Photo from Black Enterprise)

Last but not least, Gladys West, an American mathematician, was also a significant person involved in the development of the GPS. She worked with a team of engineers at a U.S. Navy base in Virginia for 42 years to develop the tool that we use every day, although she had no clue at the time what a difference it was going to make. Her contribution is remarkable because she was working during the 1950s and 60s as a black woman, two labels that didn’t receive the respect they deserved during those decades.

She started her career in 1956; she was the second black woman hired at the base, and one of just four black employees on the team. She ended up marrying one of them, Ira West, almost two years later.

Photo from Fredericksburg.com

West’s days were full of recording satellite locations, double checking equations, and data collection and analysis. Her data came from orbiting machines, which she would then enter into large supercomputers.

Because of the way she was raised, it was extremely important to West that her data was always accurate, and even though the work days were long and challenging, she told a reporter from the Associated Press how excited she was to be working with “some of the greatest scientists.”

She didn’t receive recognition until 2017. She retired in 1998 and is now 87 years old.

“When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’ You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right,'” – Gladys West

Photo from No Direction Home Rally

In the beginning, GPS was only created to guide military aircraft and missiles, but it unexpectedly blossomed into so much more; it is now a technology that almost everyone depends on every day. Roger L. Easton, Bradford Parkinson, Ivan Getting, and Gladys West are just four of hundreds that we have to thank for this system that makes our everyday lives just a little bit easier.

 

 

 

 

 

References
  • Asiado, T. (n.d.). Ivan Getting and the GPS Device. Retrieved from https://biographies.knoji.com/ivan-getting-and-the-gps-device/
  • Bradford Parkinson. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2018, from https://www.gps.gov/governance/advisory/members/parkinson/
  • Dr. Ivan A. Getting. (2003). Retrieved July 11, 2018, from https://www.nae.edu/55027.aspx
  • Dyson, C. (2018, February 03). Gladys West’s work on GPS ‘would impact the world’. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/2dee50a4b3be4564b417f7f569b38ba4/Gladys-West’s-work-on-GPS-‘would-impact-the-world’
  • Editor, G. (2017, July 13). Who invented the GPS? People behind the Global Positioning System. Retrieved from http://geoawesomeness.com/who-invented-the-gps/
  • Ivan Getting. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ethw.org/Ivan_Getting
  • Pearlman, R. (2014). Roger L. Easton, Father of GPS (1921-2014) – collectSPACE: Messages. Retrieved from http://www.collectspace.com/ubb/Forum38/HTML/001799.html