Global Positioning System (GPS) technology plays a very important role in our daily lives, even if we do not spend much time to stop and think about it. From the US Department of Defense to regular people looking for the fastest way to get somewhere, almost everyone benefits from the free access and all-weather navigation service.
But GPS technology has not always been around. There was a time when we had to figure out other ways to get from one place to another without getting lost. To further appreciate the myriad of current uses we have for GPS, let’s backtrack a few decades and retrace the history of the technology and see how people traveled the world prior to its invention. Also, prepare to learn more about how today’s society utilizes GPS for other purposes and how it is being developed for future use.
Brief History of GPS
The GPS satellite system was first developed as a navigational system for military use by the US Department of Defense during the early 1970s.
At the time, the military was looking to create a navigation system that was accurate and able to function at all times of the day anywhere on Earth regardless of weather conditions. From these efforts, they came up with systems like Project 621B, the Transit satellite system, and the Timation satellite system.
Later on, these would be consolidated into one system that we now know as GPS. The first GPS satellite would be launched in 1974. However, it would take two more decades before GPS became fully operational, in 1994.
Although GPS was primarily designed for the use of military forces, its makers also incorporated features that would be useful for civilian use like the transmission of non-encrypted signals and accurate positional capabilities for navigation and tracking.
Traveling Before GPS
With GPS only being invented in the 1970s, humans spent the greater part of our existence using less sophisticated tools to navigate our world and even the one beyond it. Here are a few ways humans used to determine location and paths before GPS:
Solar navigation: The Phoenicians, an ancient civilization from the Mediterranean area, used the sun and its various positions as a tool for determining the position of various places surrounding them. The Phoenetic words ereb (sunset) and asu (sunrise) are actually the origins of the words Asia (the place where the sun rises) and Europe (where the sun sets in the west).
Wave pattern navigation: It is amazing how early Polynesians were able to navigate their way through the Pacific Ocean’s rough waves and turbulent weather in just small boats. It’s widely believed that they employed a wide array of techniques like ‘reading’ wave patterns and mapping celestial bodies in their open-water long distance travels thousands of years ago.
Earth inductor compass: The earth inductor compass was primarily used in the 1920s to the mid-1930s as a navigation tool for long distance air travel. The compass utilized the Earth’s natural magnetic field to help pilots track their flight course.
Want to know more about the other navigational systems and methods that preceded the GPS? Learn more from the resources below.
- Smithsonian: Dead reckoning: An educated guess
- MIT School of Engineering: How were we able to navigate from the Earth to the Moon with such precision?
- Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology: History of Navigation
Traveling with GPS
Since GPS has been incorporated into cars and cellular phones, its features have become more accessible for the everyday use of regular people. Due to the convenience, GPS-equipped devices have made traveling easier for people. Some mobile applications even allow us to access maps without an Internet connection.
Google Maps is a great example of a free app where you can access or download accurate and detailed maps of just about any place in the world. The app also has fantastic features that advice users about the best routes they need to know to get to a specific place.
- United States Coast Guard Axillary: Navigating with GPS
- Conservation Tools: Global Positioning System (GPS)
- Consumer Reports: GPS buying guide: On the road again
Additional Uses for GPS
Aside from its most popular use as a travel and navigation aid, GPS technology has plenty of other uses. From mobile games to cell phone tracking to agriculture, there are other fields where the technology is being utilized.
Geocaching: Geocaching is an outdoor game where people from all over the world try to find hidden objects by following GPS coordinates posted by other players on the internet. The treasure hunt game was first conceived in the early 2000s and began with just seventy-five geocaches (hidden objects). There are now millions to discover.
Agriculture: Due to advancements in GPS technology, it has also been beneficial in the field of agriculture. For example, it has aided agriculturists in soil sampling and soil profiling in wide land areas. It has also proven beneficial in the mapping of crops and the creation of yield maps.
Tracking: Because almost all modern phones are equipped with GPS today, the technology has been used in tracking lost phones and lost phone owners by means of triangulation. This has been useful for the improvement of emergency services and even child safety.
- Education Week: Educators explore how to Use GPS for teaching
- University of Connecticut: A beginner’s step by step guide to geocaching
- National Museum of American History: Precision farming
With all the exciting and new things GPS is being used for today, it is interesting to imagine what the technology may evolve into in the future. If this subject is of interest to you, check out
The Youth Mapper’s article: The future of GPS and its potential effect on society to learn more about what the future holds. If the science is what interests you, the Institute of Physics may have what you are looking for in their more tech-based article: How does GPS work?