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The Convoluted History of GPS

Wherever you go, there you are.

Not all who wander are lost—sometimes they use GPS. In today’s constantly connected, wireless world, we take for granted that getting from where you are to where you want to be is as simple as taking out your phone and hitting up an app.

But finding one’s way wasn’t always so easy.

The humble magnetic compass was probably the first navigational tool to come into existence. It wasn’t even invented, really: it evolved. Migratory animals like birds and sea turtles evolved to rely on small amounts of magnetite ore in their heads, enabling them to sense where they were in relation to the Earth’s magnetic field—essentially turning the planet itself into a giant signpost.

The Bowery King from John Wick 2
The Bowery King from John Wick: Chapter 2. © Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Such deposits have even been found in bacteria, which use them to find their way to favorable environments. This suggests that “magnetoreception,” as this rudimentary biological GPS is called, has been around since the very beginning of life on Earth.

Recent research has shown that even humans may have a similar latent ability, albeit extremely subtle—and certainly nowhere near as canny as that of the humble homing pigeon.

The ancient Greeks reportedly used the pigeons to announce the winners of the Olympic games, and they were an essential part of war communication efforts well into the early 1900’s.

In 1845, a Jewish entrepreneur named Israel Beer Josaphat moved to London and converted to Christianity so that he could marry the daughter of a German banker. Five years later, he set up a small news delivery service, relying on a fleet of 45 pigeons to send stock prices and business updates between Brussels and Germany. The startup was so successful that it still exists today, under Josaphat’s adopted Christian name: Reuters.

It was news services like Reuters that helped make the world a much smaller place, as pigeons soon gave way to telegraphy and radio in the twentieth century. But pigeons would’ve had the last laugh, if it were up to psychologist and inventor B. F. Skinner.

Widely recognized today as a pioneer in behavioral psychology, Skinner thought to use pigeons as the living brains for a guided missile system that was eponymously named Project Pigeon. In 1943, at the height of World War II, he drew from his work on animal behavior and designed a missile nose cone that could house three specially trained pigeons. Each bird, looking out at a projected image of the landscape below, was trained to peck at an intended target.  Harnesses directly translated their neck movements into tailfin adjustments, guiding the missile’s flight.

Photo by Mike Bird for Pexels

Skinner’s kamikaze war birds never saw action, however, because the military had already developed a way of doing something similar with radio waves. Successfully deployed in 1944, the ASM-N-2 Bat was a radar-guided bomb built on the same airframe design as Project Pigeon. It demonstrated the usefulness of radio technology not just for communication but also for wayfinding and navigation.

And so it was that in 1957, US physicists William Guier and George Weiffenbach, listening in on radio signals coming from Russia’s newly-launched Sputnik satellite, realized that they could pinpoint its exact location by analyzing how the signals’ frequency changed as the satellite zipped by overhead.

Later, they figured out that the inverse is also true: if you know a satellite’s location in orbit, analyzing its radio signals will give you your position on the Earth. This led to the development of the Transit system, a network of satellites used by the US Navy in the 1960’s—and the precursor of today’s GPS.

Finding your way on the ground has never been easier. Finding yourself, however, is still a problem for the ages—one that might take a bit more than magnetic microbes and suicidal pigeons to figure out.