Following up on Civil Westman’s excellent review of Simon Winchester’s book, here’s my Amazon review:
This is a great book. Simon Winchester has a wonderful writing style and is a skillful storyteller. His story is an important one due to the importance of precision instruments in our society. That said, there are a fair numbers of small errors and one more major one in the book.
He states that, “Jefferson, while U.S. minister to France…told his superiors in Washington”. Jefferson was minister in France from 1785 to 1789. The act creating a capital district along the Potomac River was signed in July 1790. There was no Washington, D.C. when Jefferson was minister in France.
There are lots of small problems in chapter 8 which discusses GPS. I’m the coauthor of “GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones” which is included in his bibliography. https://www.amazon.com/GPS-Declassified-Smart-Bombs-Smartphones/dp/1612344089
He states that Roger Easton, my dad, came up with the idea of using clocks in satellites for a passive ranging navigation system in 1973. In reality, the idea came from a conversation with Dr. Arnold Shostak, father of SETI researcher Seth Shostak, in 1964. He states, “Roger Easton, who at the time worked for the U.S. Navy’s then –named Space Applications Branch in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.” Dad worked his whole Naval Research Lab career at its main office in Washington, D.C. The South Texas fence was a separate radar fence that was intended to be an adjunct to the primary Space fence so that an object’s orbit could be calculated on a single penetration of the two fences. Dad was there in September 1964 trying to synchronize the clocks in the two stations in this fence. He realized that a clock in a satellite could do this and later saw that it could also be used for navigation (following up on his April 1964 conversation with Dr. Shostak referenced above).
Winchester then describes the car experiment which showed that passive ranging with clocks would work except he places it in Texas whereas it was in D.C. “The other he kept at the naval station in which he was working in South Texas. While the observers were watching the oscilloscope screens he had hooked up in the lab, he ordered Maloof to drive the car as far and fast as possible down a road, Texas Route 295, which was unfinished at the time and thus empty.”
He’s describing the experiment which occurred on October 16, 1964. See page 9 from the “NRL GPS Bibliography – An Annotated Bibliography of the Origin and Development of the Global Position System at the Naval Research Laboratory” which states, “Easton’s passive ranging concept is demonstrated using a side-tone ranging receiver, modified from the South Texas experiment and placed at NRL, and a transmitter in Matt Maloof’s convertible as he drives it down the I-295 interstate. The road is finished but not yet opened to the public. Two Bureau of Naval Weapons representatives, John Yob and Chester Kleczek, observe the experiment.”
I-295 is the highway next to NRL’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. It’s not a state road in Texas. There is a reference to a South Texas experiment in the above account, but the test with Maloof’s convertible was in the D.C. area. In a 1996 interview with my Dad, they refer to the Wilson bridge across the Potomac in relation to the experiment. Wikipedia states that, “The first 7.8 miles (12.6 km) of the route opened on August 7, 1964 when the connecting segment of the Capital Beltway opened.” This fits in with an October 16th test.
The most significant error is his assertion that Reagan opened GPS to civilian uses after the shooting down of KAL 007 in 1983. This mistake is common in the literature. However, GPS was a dual use military-civilian system from day 1. The NAVSTAR Global Positioning System Program Management Plan 15 July 1974 can be found under resources on my website (gpsdeclassified). On page 2-9, it states that, “The C/A Signal will serve as an aid to the acquisition of the P Signal, and will also provide a navigation signal in the clear to both the military and civil user.” Texas Instruments was making in 1981 the TI-4100 NAVSTAR Navigator GPS Receiver for commercial users. Thus, civilian use was built into GPS in 1974 and a civilian receiver was being sold in 1981. I highly recommend this book in spite of these minor errors.
Note that Amazon does not allow external links. I could add provide them if anyone’s interested. One of the problems with Winchester’s account of GPS is that he uses Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From as a source. Johnson has a poor grasp of the history of GPS. Here’s a terrible TED talk he gave on the subject:
Based on my review, what are some of the mistakes he makes in this talk.
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