Thursday, December 2, 2010

If You Ever Used a GPS Gadget...

My GPS Connection!

by Ira Smith

Riding the sleeper on the New York Central in a claustrophobic compartment, I was wide awake to the clickety-clack of rails and the hammock-like lurches. I was on my way to Bell Telephone Laboratories at Murray Hill, New Jersey, to witness tests on a precision frequency standard to be used for aircraft navigation.

The year was 1957 and Sputnick had just been launched by the Soviet Union, taking the world by surprise as the first man-made satellite. “How can it stay up there; why doesn’t it fall back to earth? What use is it?” Such naiveté in those days. I pondered, “How about radio navigation?” Then came one of those ‘aha’ moments! “We can put shore-based LORAN in the sky and cover the whole ocean with no limits!” (LORAN – LOng Range Aid to Navigation)

I was anxious to return from my trip and present the idea to my fellow engineers at Rome Air Development Center. My boss urged me to write a disclosure in my engineering notebook and have it witnessed. Everyone was interested; however, they commented:

“Not practical, maybe for ships at sea, but certainly not for aircraft. An airborne computer would be too big and heavy and so would the antennas. Besides, it would take too many satellites.”

Nevertheless, with the help of a patent engineer, a patent application, Satellite Hyperbolic Navigation System, with bold claims to improve ship navigation, was filed November 23, 1960. A technical report by the same title was published, I received an award of $200, and the whole package was set aside.

Four years later, Patent No. 3,126,545, March 24, 1964, was issued to:

Ira D. Smith Jr., Rome, N.Y., assignor to the United States of America as represented by the Secretary of the Air Force. “The invention described herein may be manufactured and used by and for the United States Government for governmental purposes without payment to me of any royalty thereon.”

The Air Force awarded me $500. By then I was working for Raytheon Missile Systems Division (MSD) in Bedford, MA. Satellite navigation was not part of MSD’s business plan, therefore the excitement of receiving my first patent soon waned and I placed it in my personal inactive file.

Global Positioning System (GPS), based on LORAN and inspired by Sputnik, became fully operational April 27, 1995 using a constellation of 24 to 32 medium altitude earth orbiting satellites. GPS can now be used freely by anyone to determine their location, time and velocity. When I hold a GPS receiver in the palm of my hand and read my location to the nearest yard, I am in greater awe then today’s young users who take GPS for granted. The journey, from what was deemed impractical to today’s hand held unit, seems surreal.

Like Rip Van Winkle, I ‘fell asleep’ for I have not been a follower of the GPS development nor do I own a GPS receiver. After 40-plus years, I became curious and Googled Satellite Hyperbolic Navigation System, Patent No. 3,126,545 on the Internet. A 1991 MIT study report immediately emerged, Origins of GPS Surveying, sponsored by the Philips Laboratory at nearby Hanscom AFB. A partial copy of my patent was included and a diagram entitled Genealogy of GPS Surveying featured my patent as the progenitor of patents leading to GPS. The Internet also revealed several patents pertaining to GPS, two dated as late as 1997 and 1998, in which my patent is referenced as the earliest.

I have little claim to fame because in those days many an engineer or navigator familiar with LORAN must have come up with the same idea. I happened to be in an innovative work environment which fostered such endeavors. I have no regrets for I have my own hand-made trophy which hangs on the wall in my downstairs bed room where few visitors have occasion to see it. A copy of the principal drawing in my patent with edges carefully scalloped by a burning match and shellacked to a stained pine board, a decoupage of sorts with its browned antique look and those magnificent hyperbolas intersecting the ship’s position on the earthly sphere, is right out of Michelangelo’s notebook!

I still have my half-century old project notebooks full of equations and sketches and graphs. They may as well belong to someone else for all that I understand their contents today. The witness signatures at the bottom of page after page rekindle fond memories of my coworkers at RADC.

I feel like a young friend of mine, who had left home at an early age and with whom I had lost touch these many years, has now returned home having lived a quiet but notable life.


  1. Imagine my surprise, while reading this blog of my online friend, to find this post with memories of my home town, Rome, NY. SO interesting! GPS or not - small, small world.

  2. What a well crafted piece of writing, and another glimpse into the fascinating depths of Ira Smith! $200 for that idea! Now we all know, to whom to give credit for our never (make that seldom!) getting lost. Loved the ending metaphor also! Thanks for sharing this with us, Ira. Keep on writing!!!!


  3. Now I can say that I know (virtually) the originator of GPS! Great writeup and good use of active verbs toward the end.

  4. Ira what an interesting story, and told well. As Steve Jobs said we can connect the dots going back not forward. Happy Season to you. Sharon