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Mapped your run? Found the nearest Starbucks? Thank the British Empire and the Cold War.
How 100’s of years of progress in naval navigation now helps us find our way.
It’s 6am and you’ve already showered and started your post-run coffee. Your Strava app chimes that you got a new PR on the part of your run through the local park, and one of your online friends liked your effort. It’s going to be a good day. Simple, right? Nope. Tracking your run is the culmination of hundreds of years of (mostly military) spending and technological progress.
Great Britain, 1714
Let’s jump back a few hundred years before your epic run. The ever-expanding British Empire had a great need for better maritime navigation, and specifically a reasonable way to figure out a ship’s longitude. 7 years earlier they lost 4 ships - and thousands of men - in the Scilly naval disaster. That loss is at least partially responsible for the subsequent push for a solution to the Longitude Problem. 1 2
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A large financial prize - millions in today’s value - was put forth for anyone who could help solve it. They weren’t the first to go this route with prizes in Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands all preceding Great Britain’s. The adjudication of the prize came from members of the political and scientific spheres and the Admiralty. Ultimately most of the prize would go to a watchmaker: an accurate clock at sea means mariners can see the difference between the time shown when the Sun is directly overhead and work out longitude from there.
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
— Rule, Britannia!, James Thomson
While there are history books filled with reasons why the British Empire grew so successfully, certainly their ability to explore and navigate with more confidence was one of them. Interestingly, their improved navigation (and thus maps) gave them a head start on laying the first oceanic telegraph cables. By 1913 “the empire on which the sun never sets” spanned the globe and had some level of control of a quarter of all of the land and people in the world. 3 4
United States, 1957
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, two enterprising scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory showed that they could not only track the satellite’s position but could use the same techniques to track ground position of the receiver. Much of APL’s funding then and now came from the DOD, mainly the U.S. Navy. 5
The Americans needed a way to put ICBM’s on trains to avoid a debilitating first strike from the USSR. They needed far more positional precision for almost all aspects of their military: ships, airplanes, ground troops, etc. Above and beyond what existed, they needed velocity and position in 3 dimensions.
Over the next couple of decades a joint effort between branches of the US military and various labs yielded the Global Positioning System (GPS), the combination of a constellation of satellites carrying atomic clocks along with passive receivers on the ground and in the air. Like the watchmaker and the longitude problem it turns out the the precision of atomic clocks was needed to provide the accuracy needed.
In 1983 a Korean Air flight was shot down over Kamchatka, seemingly the result of navigational errors. That disaster prompted the United States to open up the GPS signal for civilian use. 6
In subsequent decades other countries and groups of countries built their own versions of GPS to avoid dependence of their own interests (military or otherwise) on purely U.S. technology. Now when a device looks for a “GPS” signal it can actually use the signals from US, European, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and Indian satellite systems. The U.S. system is now operated and maintained by the U.S. Space Force, a military branch that didn’t even exist when the first GPS satellite was deployed.
In “GPS” from the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series, Paul Ceruzzi shows how GPS became a social construction, the black box solution being an amalgam of all of the technologies involved. Like other social constructs (eg. money, time, race, and so on) it has become integrated with our language and our behavior.
As an agreed upon social construct we tend to trust GPS implicitly and generally avoid thinking about scenarios where it might not be there. When we use online tools like Strava or Google Maps we lump GPS in with our shared construct of “The Web”, as something omnipresent and solid. It’s part of our phones and cars so it must work all the time.
Solar flares and coronal mass ejections are real things so we could quite easily lose our car directions one day. If the US Space Force’s 20B+ USD budget means anything they probably workshop scenarios where a James Bond villain messes with the satellites or their signals. The US military relies on celestial navigation as a backup: it’s technology-laden these days but it is still basically observing the stars like the Pacific-Islanders. Airlines use VOR and inertial navigation systems as backups. 7 8 9 10 11
Current related spending and companies involved in GPS defense spending - CLICK TO EXPAND
I surveyed reports of new-ish military spending in the GPS world, including what I could find for GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, Beidou, Navic, and QZSS. Because they are mostly controlled by the military it’s a little tougher to see the companies and investors in Chinese and Russian systems. Although the Indian and Japanese systems are predominantly civilian there is even less information. 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35
Not surprisingly we see some of the big names here developing the technology: Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Airbus, BAE, Roscosmos, etc. These companies alone employ 100,000’s of thousands of people. There is country-level investment for the EU and Chinese systems denoted by their respective flags. Mostly we can see that the top-feeders are the big investment firms. Vanguard and BlackRock always appear somewhere. For reference, a 2021 report indicated that the world’s assets were just under 500 trillion USD: the combination of BlackRock, Vanguard, Fidelity, Bank of America, and a few others on this graph total about a tenth of that in assets under management. 36
Several sovereign wealth funds show up, Libya (oddly), and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (huh?).
The Good, The Bad
Along with mapping your run, GPS helps track your packages, all aspects of logistics (eg. shipping, flights, trains, trucks), helps your device provide you with location-specific content and advertising, tells you where the next Über ride is coming from, where your bags are, and logs where you’ve been for law enforcement to look at.
The positive is that we always know where we are in the world, the negative is that now everyone else does too. It’s easy for a nefarious actor (or an equivalently profit-driven company) to build up a detailed profile of your movements, and that’s dangerous.
We can use GPS to shift the blame for our lost baggage, blame GPS for why we drunkenly drove down a frozen canal or blindly followed instructions and ended up in a field. We can use GPS to guide drone attacks or try to block GPS signals to prevent those attacks. It’s doubtful that Über or Lyft would exist without GPS and there are many many taxi drivers who would love that. 37 38
Across widely different market segments such as agriculture and telecommunications GPS is estimated to have driven $1.4 trillion USD in economic growth since 1983, and that is only expected to grow with improved efficiencies in IC’s and batteries. The GPS device-tracking market alone is expected to grow to more than $5B USD in the next decade. 39 40
Precise positioning systems will be important for Augmented Reality (AR) systems to take root, using location services to overlap virtual information onto the real world. There are reports that Apple expects AR systems to replace the iPhone within a decade. 41
Now we’re planning the same thing on Mars because GPS has become so integral to what we see as a baseline level of technology necessary to live. Humanity will never look back from devices with integrated global positioning. One imagines SPSS, a “Solar System Positioning System” once equivalent systems are up on other solar system bodies: it’ll still be part of the black box of features for most people. 42
So, you mapped your run and then used Google Maps to find the nearest Starbucks. GPS is a great example of how our day-to-day lives are changed by spending and technological progress made in the name of the military and national security. Yet public sentiment was also part of the drive behind that spending.
It’s well past the peak of the British Empire but all of the same things hold true about global navigation and geopolitics. GPS development paralleled the Longitude Problem in many ways: accurate clocks, overlap between military and civilian usage, lots of involvement from the scientific community, and the need for national security and global power/control. In these cases the military needs aligned closely with the needs of industry, politics, and people: safer worldwide navigation was tantamount. In both cases the result was a growing economy, a shrinking world, and perhaps a loss of innocence for many.
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