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Iterations in Innovation: How Sputnik brought about modern GPS

Posted on February 18, 2016

If there is one piece of advanced technology that has grown so ubiquitous it borders on invisible, it is the Global Positioning System (GPS).

We now take it for granted that we can draw up precise locations and driving directions to any point on Earth. It’s almost hard to remember the maps and atlases we once bought at great expense and kept in our glove compartment. This information is now at our fingertips any time, day or night, for free through our smartphone.

But looking deeper, one realizes the technology’s ubiquity and ease of use mask the scale and sophistication of the underlying framework. The Global Positioning System is patched together by thousands of satellites beaming down precise locations of every point on Earth for use by millions of users.

How did something so complicated and widely used come about? (Given that Vocoli software is all about bringing new ideas to fruition, it’s a question worth examining.)


It All Began In Outer Space

As told by Steven Johnson in his TED Talk “Where Good Ideas Come From,” the birth of GPS began shortly after Sputnik was launched in October 1957 at the applied physics lab in Johns Hopkins University.

It was during a lunchtime discussion of the satellite in the cafeteria where two young researchers, Guier and Weiffenbach, fell into a conversation. One of them asked if anyone had tried “listening” to the satellite as it was most likely broadcasting a signal. The idea was generally agreed by all to be a good one but no one had ever attempted it.

This meeting was fortuitous as Weiffenbach was the resident expert in microwave reception and had an antennae and amplifier in his office. After lunch, the two went to Weiffenbach's office and began building a listening device. The satellite was designed to be easy to track so no one would think it a hoax and in a couple of hours, Guier and Weiffenbach were listening to it’s steady beeping from space.

Word got around the office of their creation and colleagues were impressed. Recognizing the historic importance of the moment, they recorded the signal with a clunky tape recorder. While simultaneously recording the time stamps and noting frequency variations of the signal, the two realized they could most likely determine the speed of the satellite using the Doppler effect. Using a room-sized computer to record and process the signal the two mapped the exact trajectory of Sputnik around the Earth.

A few weeks later their boss, Frank McClure, asked if the process could operate in reverse. Essentially if an unknown location on the ground could be determined from the satellite. They quickly realized not only that it was possible but it was also easier.

Thirty years later Ronald Reagan opened up the technology to the public for development towards any use. Johnson notes the unusual turn of events, what had started as Cold War military technology for dropping nuclear warheads on Moscow, now helps people locate the nearest coffee shop.


How Good Ideas Are Developed

Looking to the history of the GPS one can see certain patterns which facilitated its development. The original prototype was not created as part of a massive, deadline-driven project. Rather it was a side project born out of an question from a casual conversation.

As development progressed, management took a hands-off approach but continued to provide direction by asking questions about what was possible. And once the system was opened up to the public, advancement was turbo-charged and it soon became available commercially.

Vocoli software is designed to facilitate innovation in a similar manner at both public and private institutions. Using our platform, employees can submit and discuss ideas, management can provide direction, issue challenges, and offer rewards for the best ideas.


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