The History of GPS—Back to the First Century

A new book details the primitive origins of the GPS tracking technologies that are so pervasive in today’s mobile-phone-enabled world.

1 minute read

April 15, 2014, 1:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Brett Brownell shares news of a new book by Boston Globe technology writer Hiawatha Bray called You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves.

Brownell calls You Are Here “an entertaining, detailed history of how we evolved from primitive navigation tools to our current state of instant digital mapping—and, of course, governments' subsequent ability to track us.” Here are a few examples:

  • “1st century: The Chinese begin writing about mysterious ladles made of lodestone. The ladle handles always point south when used during future-telling rituals. In the following centuries, lodestone's magnetic abilities lead to the development of the first compasses.”
  • “2nd century: Ptolemy's Geography is published and sets the standard for maps that use latitude and longitude.”
  • “1958: Approximately six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, Frank McLure, the research director at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, calls physicists William Guier and George Weiffenbach into his office. Guier and Weiffenbach used radio receivers to listen to Sputnik's consistent electronic beeping and calculate the Soviet satellite's location; McLure wants to know if the process could work in reverse, allowing a satellite to location their position on earth. The foundation for GPS tracking is born.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 in Mother Jones

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