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Cheat Sheet: Location, location, location – the history of the GPS

Innovators sure have spent a lot of time coming up with terms to romanticise the idea creation process. We have eureka moments, lightbulb moments, falling apples, flashes of light, epiphanies … the list of florid descriptors goes on and on. Quite often we are made to believe that good ideas just pop out on the side of the freeway and wave down whoever might be passing by. But take a quick look at the history of GPS, a technology that has enabled a huge number of other technologies to exist, and it becomes clear this isn’t generally how it works.

Beep, beep, beep

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into space, and it started beaming signals down to Earth. It didn’t take long for a few tech geeks working for the applied physics lab at John Hopkins University to tune in and start recording the beeps. They attached a time stamp to each beep and noticed that there were small frequency variations, which they then used to track the location of the satellite as it orbited the planet. They had essentially pinpointed the exact position of something that was previously just floating in the great beyond.

Flip it

In his Ted Talk on innovation, Steven Johnson tells the story of how the geeks’ boss Frank McClure (who was working with the US Navy) asked if they could reverse the process and use the satellite to pinpoint the location of the person connecting to it, mostly so he could keep track of submarines. The geeks went away, ran the numbers, and realised this was actually easier—which in turn gave birth to GPS.

Satellite party

Under the Ronald Reagan administration more and more satellites were shot into space, and GPS tracking became more accurate. It didn’t take long for companies such as Garmin and TomTom to tap into this technology and create an enormous industry out of giving people driving directions.

Money, money, less money

In the words of tech sage Nelly Furtado, “all good things come to an end” and this is certainly applicable to the GPS industry. The introduction of GPS tech in smartphones has seen sales of Garmin’s automotive units decline massively over the last few years, to the extent that they accounted for only 37 percent of the company’s total sales in 2015 (down from 60 percent in 2011).

Change or die

The decline in sales has left these companies with no choice but to change their businesses, and they’ve done this by latching onto the ‘quantified self’ trend and producing trackers that can record people’s movement (among other things). Garmin now finds itself competing against the Fitbit, Jawbone and Misfit (who thinks up these names?), and time will tell whether it has the resolve to survive.

Endless opportunity

Tom Uglow, the creative director at Google Creative Lab in Sydney, says the real opportunity for innovation lies in finding new applications for the features that already exist. And you can clearly see this come to fruition with GPS. We now have Uber matching passengers with drivers, a whole new form of treasure hunting with Geocaching, the ability to track tagged animals, pets and children and mobile GPS art, autonomous vehicles being guided by satellites and cameras, and much, much more.

Innovation is a ladder

While Steve Jobs originally invoked Picasso’s famous quote ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’, that attitude changed when Apple started protecting its patents. But there is nothing new under the sun. The smartphone is a collection of things that already exist, assembled in a new way. Ideas build on other ideas, and then eventually other people build on them. Thanks GPS. Where would we be without you?

One of the talented Idealog Team Content Producers made this post happen.

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