New history of GPS; when $1 device works better than $100,000 receiver

Opening day for EAA AirVenture (“Oshkosh”). I hope to see readers during and/or after my Wednesday talk on helicopter aerodynamics (0830 on Forum Stage 6).

One big theme at Oshkosh is the innovation and excitement in the world of experimental aircraft world compared to the glacial pace of progress in the world of certified aircraft.

The month of June was not exactly a success story for regulation. A certified helicopter that lacked even 1% of the intelligence of a DJI drone was crashed into a building in New York City (NYT). Less dramatically, the FAA-certified GPS ($100,000?) in the Canadair Regional Jet that I used to fly failed due to a software problem (AOPA). Meanwhile, the GPS chips inside phones ($1?) continued to work nicely.

[On nearly the same day that these regional jets were back to using VORs, a Facebook friend linked to a post from The Female Lead:

Of course, I couldn’t resist commenting “She also invented the semiconductor transistor and the silicon integrated circuit.” This was greeted approvingly.]

The FAA became a lot more nimble starting a few years ago regarding the approval of avionics that could make small aircraft safer. So it will be interesting to see this week whether there is more innovation in the kit or certified world.


23 thoughts on “New history of GPS; when $1 device works better than $100,000 receiver

  1. Hey Phil

    How can a project as complex as GPS have an “inventor?” I think she published a set of equations that was used in developing the software?

  2. Apparently, Dr West was a brilliant and hardworking mathematician whose contributions included pioneering work on modeling the earths true complex shape which is just one of the inputs to the system, but to say she “invented” GPS is unfortunate and dismisses all the insights and work done by countless other people.

    • So apparently some person or group of people called The Female Lead, which none of us have heard of previously, exaggerated this woman’s accomplishments. That’s not very interesting.

    • Well, he have a pre-woke inventor of the Internet, who also invented Global Warming and became a billionaire because of his invention. Too bad he’s toxically masculine white dude.

  3. Vince you should know by now that Phil hates any mention of women accomplishing anything other than massive divorce settlements.

    “In December 2018, Dr. West was finally inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame – one of Air Force’s Space Commands Highest Honors. At the induction, the Air Force recognized Dr. West’s contribution in programming an IBM 7030 ‘Stretch’ computer to deliver “increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.””

    So if you change “the inventor of GPS” to “an inventor of GPS” then seems pretty fair.

  4. @philg,

    The FAA is still without a chief executive. Our President is a strong proponent of deregulation. You often complain about the heavy-handed regulatory climate around general aviation.

    Is there any hope that things might improve? Are general aviators amenable to political action to liberalize flying? Can general aviation be made great again?

  5. Folks above commenting on whether it makes sense to credit Gladys West as “the inventor” of GPS… what I think is most interesting is that she is referred to as a “mathematician.” She was a civilian employee of the USAF, apparently, and held the job and job title of computer programmer. The insistence on reclassifying her as a “mathematician” rather than celebrating her achievements as a “programmer” show the low regard in which society holds programmers (including those who, out of desperation, insist on calling themselves “software engineers”).

    (Separately, the ideas behind GPS go back to the 1930s (see GEE reference, above). So it would be tough for a person born in 1930, such as Gladys West, to be its inventor. says “she programmed an IBM 7030 ‘Stretch’ computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.” By the time a Wikipedia author got through this sentence it came out as “West’s data ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).”)

    • I mean she has a Master in Mathematics, so no need to put “mathematician” in quotes.

      I’m a “programmer” and the amount of mathematics I’ve needed to know has been far eclipsed by my ability to Google things on stackoverflow.

      Resources that in 1956 were pretty scant.

      So this black, woman, mathematician seems far more accomplished than any commenter here that wants to tear her down out of modern Republican anti-virtue signaling.

    • “A mathematician is someone who uses an extensive knowledge of mathematics in his or her work, typically to solve mathematical problems.”

      Sounds like she qualifies – sorry to burst your bubble Engineer!

    • “She got her free ticket to college, majored in math and taught two years in Sussex County before she went back to school for her master’s degree.”

      “I was ecstatic,” she said. “I was able to come from Dinwiddie County and be able to work with some of the greatest scientists working on these projects.”

    • Here’s more. Note the dates.

      In 1986, West published “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter”, a 60-page illustrated guide. The Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC) guide was published to explain how to increase the accuracy of the estimation of “geoid heights and vertical deflection”, topics of satellite geodesy. This was achieved by processing the data created from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite which went into orbit on 12 March 1984. She worked at Dahlgren for 42 years, retiring in 1998. Her contributions to GPS were only uncovered when a member of West’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, read a short biography West had submitted for an alumni function.

  6. The above-cited history of GPS, , does not credit any government workers with the key innovations or ideas that enabled the jump from land-based radio navigation to space-based. All of the “inventors” were working at a university-run lab or a government contractor (The Aerospace Corporation). Dr. Ivan Getting, James Woodford, and Hideyoshi Nakamura seem to have been the architects of what became modern GPS.

    • There’s no significant distinction between a government worker and a government contractor. Either way it’s was taxpayer-funded R & D. As you’ve stated, the people want a planned economy. There are different ways to achieve that.

  7. Given that we are now operating in a post meritocratic age, I don’t see what the fuss is all about. So what if this individual has no mathematics publications.

    Just as gender is a social construct, so too can one’s career identification!

  8. I happen to have a family member who worked at MIT during the ’60s but he wasn’t the inventor of any guidance systems or flight computers. He contributed to the effort, though, because his primary role was keeping things running and helping to optimize code. Nobody has ever claimed he invented the Apollo Flight Computer but he understood it, thanks to his training and his dedication to serving his country. It worked! He was educated very well.

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