There have been more inventions in my lifetime than, just possibly, all of time. The microchip, the Internet, and intermittent windshield wipers are just a few. The one that never ceases to amaze and to help me the most, however, is GPS. The thought that you could use satellites to navigate here on earth may seem routine to many at this point, but it still boggles my mind.
Add to that invention the fact that a handheld device can hold and locate you on a map of virtually all the world’s roads or its waters, and you have a modern miracle. And it is fairly affordable as well!
Paper maps are nearly a thing of the past, and paper water navigation charts are being phased out. Before satellites, sailors had to rely on stars to navigate, using a sextant. If that option wasn’t available, they relied on dead reckoning, a foreboding name for knowing where you are.
I was sailing west across the Bahamas one night before GPS was available to the public. My dead reckoning was off by several miles, and I was saved from an unfortunate collision with a reef only because I kept a good watch.
An incident in 1983 was the catalyst for opening GPS to commercial and public use. Russia shot down a Korean Air flight after it strayed into Russian airspace.
Operation of the system is so precise that each satellite’s internal clock is programmed to within nanoseconds of the others. In fact, the effects of Einstein’s relativity have to be taken into account to read a satellite’s signal.
The Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation for a number of years, because of the availability and accuracy of GPS. They may know something that we don’t, because the course is now back in the curriculum. There is a good piece in the New Yorker about what might happen if the GPS system failed.
On the road I rely on the Waze app nearly everywhere I drive. It maps your route and goes one step further to check against the traffic data from other users. If traffic is bad, the app searches for a faster route.
There are plenty of examples of GPS leading folks astray. More than once, it has routed me to places I didn’t intend, because I put in the wrong address. Waze has routed me through some strange places just to save me one minute in travel time. Part of the reason for its usefulness is that it tracks your location even when you are not using it, a privacy issue that few know about. A few of the better, or worse, examples of GPS gone wrong can be found here.
GPS will soon enable a leap in navigation with the advent of self-driving cars, something I’m somewhat wary of. I remember though when my mother bought an electronic calculator to help her with math. She never quite got to trusting it, and I often saw her with pencil and paper to check its work.
We may have come far technologically, but human nature remains the same.