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GPS Predicted 56 Years Ago This Month

Posted in News on October 16th, 2012
Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke in 1952. Photo from ew.com

If the name Arthur C. Clarke rings a bell, you may know him as the co-writer (along with Stanley Kubrick) of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Clarke wasn’t just a world-famous author of science fiction stories and novels; he was also a genuine inventor and noted futurist taken quite seriously by the scientific community. In addition to serving as Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, Clarke developed an extensive knowledge of radar during World War II. But his most notable contribution to modern technology may have been his prediction of the global positioning system, which he first described in August 1956.

 

Clarke had already touted the use of satellites for global communications as far back as 1945 before taking the idea a step further in a letter to the American Rocket Society’s Andrew Haley. The ideas Clarke presented will sound awfully familiar to anyone who understands modern GPS — a trio of satellites in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth, doubling as a global TV transmitting system and a “position-finding grid.” This grid is the same basic concept behind today’s method of triangulating on a transmitting device’s position anywhere on Earth. He went on to envision such a device being “about the size of a watch” with a simple control mechanism for locating the user’s exact location.

 

Within a couple of years, the military had followed Clarke’s lead and begun work on a global navigation system for submarines. By 1964, ten satellites were in orbit to enable the TRANSIT system. Three decades later, the 24 satellites making up the modern NavStar GPS system had been launched into position.

Clarke left the technical details “for the experts to work out,” concluding, “I’ll get on with my science fiction and wait to say ‘I told you so!’”

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