The Man Who Invented GPS Has Died
We’d have a hard time fighting without satellite navigation
Imagine a world without Global Positioning System, the constellation of navigational satellites. No, imagine a war without GPS.
No satellite-guided missiles. No devices to tell soldiers their exact location. Suddenly, every soldier, sailor and pilot has to expertly navigate like Julius Caesar, Horatio Nelson and Eddie Rickenbacker did. By reading a map, reading the stars, dead reckoning—or hope and prayer.
Thank you, Roger Easton, for making our daily commutes and our military campaigns so much easier.
Easton, who died last month at the age of 93, was a GPS pioneer. He joined Naval Research Laboratory as a physicist in 1943, working on radar beacons, blind landing systems, and then Vanguard satellite project in the 1950s.
Difficulties in communicating with orbiting satellites led Easton to conceive of GPS. “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,” the NRL said in its obituary.
He called the new technology “Timation”—for “time-navigation.” We know it as GPS, which the Pentagon adopted and renamed in the 1970s.
Or, at least that the’s Navy story. Some say the Air Force also came up with the idea of satellite navigation. However, Easton’s son insists that the Navy was the prime mover.
Regardless of who did the inventing, it’s hard to overstate GPS’ impact. Satellite navigation doesn’t just show taxi drivers or tank drivers their locations. It also tells U.S. missiles where to hit with pinpoint accuracy.
Unfortunately for America, the technology works just as well for Chinese and Russian missiles.
Hence the invention of GPS jammers, which in the seesaw world of military technology in turn led to GPS anti-jamming technology. GPS’ importance also makes it a prime target during wartime—a fact that has not escaped China’s attention. A U.S. government report last year noted that a recent Chinese missile test could be a precursor to an anti-GPS satellite system.
Like other technologies, from cell phones to email, GPS is both a wonder and a crutch. It enables people and weapons to their determine their locations with unparalleled accuracy. Yet GPS also creates a vulnerability so wide that it is questionable how well the U.S. and other advanced militaries could function without it.
Ironically, a low-tech army like the Taliban would probably endure the loss of GPS much better. Yet even there, one wonders how well the modern insurgent can function without his cell phone.
We take for granted that technology like GPS will be there. We are lost—in more ways than one—when it isn’t.