Integrated within your Smartphone or tablet device, GPS is used in location-based social networking (Foursquare, Loopt, and Google Latitude), location-based advertising, Wi-Fi hotspot apps, Circle of Friend apps, and more. GPS apps are used to plan road trips and vacations (Kayak, RoadTrip, and Sit or Squat), in emergency roadside assistance (AAA, AcuraLink, and Mini), to maintain journals of favorite locations (Trip Journal), to track luggage (Trace Me), to find friends and groups in crowded venues (Find My Friend), to stay physically fit (Cyclemeter & Runmeter), and the list goes on. It’s hard to imagine life without GPS in some capacity or another.
This is the way GPS exists in our lives today. It’s familiar to us and it’s what we’ve come to know and have become accustomed to. But where did it come from and how did we get to this point, with GPS as such as habitual part of who we are? To contemplate GPS of today, and glimpse where it will be tomorrow, we have to regard GPS of yesterday. So, let’s digress from the present day for a bit and wind the clocks back in time. Now, where did I park my DeLorean?? One quick note. I will not be delving into the more technical aspects of the history behind GPS. Rather I will attempt to maintain a layman’s perspective of its evolution. If I happen to stray too far toward the technical, simply add your question in the comments area and I will do my best to clarify. Not to worry, I’m far from an engineer…I’m just a lowly salesman.
The interest in navigation, specifically location and direction (heading), long predates GPS and satellite technology. Obviously, you don’t need to be a member of Mensa to come to the same conclusion. To accurately determine a location on the Earths’ surface, at the very minimum it’s necessary to know latitude, longitude, and altitude. In the 15th century, during the age of exploration, the very moment that line of sight with land was lost disorientation set in. Because of this, safe travel at sea was virtually non-existent and was a source of lost vessels and many lives. Imagine having to sail blindly, miles away from shore, with absolutely no idea of where you were or in which direction you were headed?! I would prefer to stay on dry land, thank you very much. Fundamentally, accurate navigation is dependent on two basic principles…a stationary reference point and a precise time measurement. Historically, we could look back as far as the 15th century to find some of
the greatest minds of their time struggling for an answer to this problem; Amerigo Vespucci in 1499, Galileo in 1612, and then London clock-maker John Harrison in the mid 1700’s. The dominant historical issue was accurate determination of longitude, and they all took turns at solving the problem with varying degrees of success and failure, each ultimately coming up short.
The British government went so far as to pass the Longitude Act of 1714, offering a large monetary award to the inventor of a solution to this headache of a problem. In their defense, progress and crude advancements were made by all three but the solutions proposed were, for the most part, deemed impractical. The primary method being considered was limited by several factors. This was attributed to the fact that the attempts to calculate longitude were dependent upon anticipating a specific planetary alignment, which required a stable observation platform, and then using that short-lived celestial event as their stationary reference point. However, ships at sea are anything but stable, and planets don’t perfectly align nearly often enough to be used as a reliable reference point. Can you imagine stargazing, waiting for certain planets to perfectly align, all the while fighting off seasickness due to the relentless back and forth rocking of the boat?! Doesn’t sound like the most practical idea ever conceived, does it? So that, of course, ruled out the idea of using planetary events to determine longitude.