By Ashley Nation
It’s impossible to imagine a world without GPS. It’s readily accessible and often used in our cars, smartphones, cameras, ATMs, construction, and far more. We don’t usually stop to think about it, but finding directions in a foreign country or tracking your latest Amazon Prime package are all made possible by GPS. So, what is it, really? Who invented GPS? When was GPS invented? To answer all those questions and more, here’s the interesting history of the GPS.

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When Was GPS Invented?

The United States Department of Defense started the GPS project in 1973. The first prototype, called the Block-I GPS satellite, was launched in 1978 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. In 1990 and 1991, the U.S. military relied heavily on GPS during the Gulf War with Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The system made the journey through the deserts in Kuwait and Iraq feasible. It’s currently operated by Delta 8 at the Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. They monitor and control the world’s largest satellite constellation. Back in 2020, the 2nd Space Operations Squadron at Schriever AFB marked 25 years of GPS. By 1993, the 24 (now 31) satellites that made up the system were fully operational. The GPS drastically improved warfare again in the early 2000s in the midst of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

What Does GPS Stand For?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System and used to be named Navstar GPS (which is a slightly cooler title, in our opinion). It’s considered a constellation of 31 carefully positioned satellites that deliver extremely accurate positions and times.

What Was the GPS Originally Invented For?

It was originally designed to accurately locate military transportation technology across the globe and improve upon previous navigation systems. It wasn’t until 1983, after the Korean Airline tragedy, that President Reagan announced GPS would be available for civilian use upon its completion. The Reagan administration realized how vital GPS could be to the safety of U.S. citizens. Over time, the GPS has transformed into a free, universally used tool that not only aids in our safety but also provides convenience for everyday life.

Who Invented the GPS?

Though this revolutionary technology was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, there are a few scientists who have been acknowledged as significant contributors. Roger L. Easton was the head of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Space Application division. He was a scientist of the Cold War and specialized in the crucial features of GPS, like circular orbits and timing technology. He was awarded the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President George Bush in 2004 for these efforts. Dr. Ivan Getting was the founding president of The Aerospace Corporation and pushed the GPS into operation. He was accredited for the creation of GPS by The Inventors Hall of Fame. Some argued that, while being very supportive of the GPS program, Dr. Getting shouldn’t have received credit for its invention. It cannot be denied, however, that his contributions in leading stockholders and negotiating agreements were valuable and necessary. Brad Parkinson was the Navstar GPS program’s first manager and thus played a role in its inception and the beginning to middle stages of its implementation. Dr. Gladys West started out in the United States Naval Weapons Laboratory and would go on to compute equations and interpret data from satellites to help determine their exact location. She was the “Hidden Figure” of the GPS and finally received her commendation flowers after being inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.

How Does GPS Work?

We know that GPS is a system, and that system is made up of three parts: satellites, ground stations, and receivers. Satellites are the stars in the constellation we previously mentioned. There are 31 satellites broadcasting radio signals providing exact location and precise time from on-board atomic clocks. These signals travel through space at the speed of light or, more specifically, 300,000 kilometers per second. Ground stations pick up those signals and confirm exactly where these satellites are.

How Does GPS Tracking Work?

A GPS device like your phone receives these radio signals and uses them to calculate two things. First, it calculates the distance from multiple satellites. Once the device knows its distance from at least three satellites, it’s able to determine its location on earth in three dimensions. Latitude, longitude, elevation, and time are all solved for in a matter of seconds.

How Accurate Is GPS?

GPS satellites always broadcast with a high level of accuracy, but GPS receivers can be affected by multiple factors. Satellite signals can be blocked by buildings or trees, the receiver could be underground, and signals can be reflected off buildings and walls. These are the most common causes of incorrect positioning. Though not a flawless system, recent data from the Federal Aviation Administration shows that GPS receivers maintain a 95% accuracy. The GPS has statistically and operationally proven to be an efficient network with high accuracy.

Innovation We Take for Granted

When was GPS invented? Now you know the answer to that and a whole lot more. The modern GPS is probably a technological advancement most people take for granted, but the GPS has always been essential to the military. Whether it’s a small GPS tracker for your car or the navigation system for U.S. military aircraft and vessels, GPS powers it all.

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