GPS History Adventures

In researching my book, I came across many accounts of how GPS was supposed to have developed.  Researching primary sources revealed a different story.  Alas, journalists generally have not done the work to find these sources and have accepted inaccurate stories.  An example is presented here.

Brad Parkinson was the first head of the GPS Joint Program Office (1973-8).  He is frequently called the father or inventor of GPS.  I think this is inaccurate.  GPS largely stems from my Dad’s Timation program.  I won’t argue that in depth here (read my book), but I will examine one of his claims.  In a May-June 2010 GPS World article, Dr. Parkinson states:

  • The fundamental 621B concept of simultaneous passive ranging to four satellites would be the underlying principle of the new system proposal, ensuring that user equipment would not require a synchronized atomic clock.

Compare this with Phil Klass’s August 20, 1973 article in Aviation Week and Space Technology:

Fortunately, there are some technical similarities in the USAF and Navy approaches to the problem.  For example, both would determine position by making simultaneous measurements of distance (range) from user to each of several satellites.

Both my Dad’s Timation and the AF/Aerospace used this approach.  Parkinson has denied this for many decades (see the last slide of this presentation), but his own 1974 document states that Timation was a program for 3D navigation.  The 1971 Timation Development Plan shows a drawing of four satellites sending signals to an airplane ( see page 16 of the pdf figure 3-1 in the report).  It’s amazing the contrast between primary sources and peoples’ later claims.


Author: Richard Easton

Co-author of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones.

7 thoughts on “GPS History Adventures”

  1. Thank you Richard.   I’ve often wondered how painful it will be for our grandchildren to read about an historic event, while we who were there attempt to convince them what they are being taught is not true.   I wonder how much lousy lousy journalism and faux news will end up in tomorrow’s textbooks.

    The day I saw the magazine cover announcing Hillary Clinton was President of the United States, I almost fell over.  I kept thinking someday, some idiot will attempt to prove the claim that HRC won the election by referencing a major news publication cover publishing that she had won.

  2. People get paid for writing good stories. Sometimes those stories are true.

    I like Clare Boothe Luce’s take on autobiographies. She called them alibiographies.

    I caught a speech by H. W.  Brands. He was talking about teaching high school history. He said that we often forget the last name of those high school teachers but remember their first name, Coach.

  3. It sounds like there is a bit of a bitter dispute between Easton and Parkinson camps here.  Two slides specifically to address your book, added at the end of his presentation.  Were they professional rivals?

  4. OmegaPaladin:
    It sounds like there is a bit of a bitter dispute between Easton and Parkinson camps here.  Two slides specifically to address your book, added at the end of his presentation.  Were they professional rivals?

    That’s an excellent question.  Yes, they were rivals.  Note though that Parkinson’s presentation was made in 2009 whereas my book was published in 2013.  But my first article in 2006 received a lot of attention and still is cited today.   I will gave more details this afternoon.

    2006 article.

    2010 letter from Parkinson after Dad got inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and my response.

  5. My dad, Roger Easton, worked at the Naval Research Lab from 1943-80.  In 1952, he transferred to the Rocket-Sonde division (it may have been a branch) which was launching Viking rockets for upper atmospheric research.  In 1955, he co-wrote the proposal for what became Project Vanguard to launch the first American satellite.  For Vanguard, he helped design Minitrack and the test vehicle satellites.  Vanguard 1, which he designed, was the first satellite to carry solar cells.

    Here I am, wearing the red coat, with Vanguard 1 shortly before its launch.  He then designed the Naval Space Surveillance System to track all satellites including Soviet Spy Satellites.  In 1964, he started the Timation (TIMe NavigATION) System to provide improve on the Transit system.  In 1973 it was combined with the AF Project 621B to create GPS.  More later


  6. Success has many fathers, failure none.

    A Boeing engineer who had just finished a difficult and very productive process (and he was getting major kudos from his peers) told me, “We haven’t yet met the people who will get the credit for this.”

  7. Bradford Parkinson graduated from the Naval Academy in 1957 and went into the AF.  He served as a pilot in Vietnam.  In 1972, he took over the AF/Aerospace’s Project 621B.  He heading up the GPS Joint Program Office from 1973-1978.  He then moved on to private industry and later became a professor at Stanford.  I heard him speak at the Smithsonian in 2009.  If people are interested, I will tell a story about that in the private section of Ratburger.  I will also explore additional problems with his account of GPS’s history if there’s interest.


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