GPS and Moving in the Right Direction

Hey, good buddy, I'm finally headed in the right direction — so is the rest of humanity.

I got a handheld Global Positioning Systems (GPS) device for Christmas. It's amazing what the thing can do.

Not only does it allow me to search for a restaurant, store or anyplace nearby, it provides phone numbers and addresses. Then a female voice tells me exactly where to drive (they use a female because a male might not consult anybody for directions).

GPS technology dates back to 1957. U.S. scientists were warily monitoring Sputnik 1 — the world's first satellite launch, which was sent into space by the Soviets. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the scientists stumbled onto something unexpected.

As Sputnik approached their location, the frequency of its radio signal increased. As it moved farther away, its frequency decreased. This effect is known as the Doppler Shift. Scientists were able to use this information determine Sputnik 1's location in space.

But they also immediately concluded something else: they could use satellite signals to determine specific locations on the ground.

 Since then the government has been perfecting the GPS concept. Our current system is comprised of 24 satellites that orbit the earth. Thanks to a directive Ronald Reagan signed in 1983, GPS, upon its completion, was to be made available to civilians.

And since the GPS system was enhanced and modernized in 2005, civilians have been using it like mad. Any fellow with a handheld GPS receiver can quickly determine his longitude, latitude and altitude — and, more importantly, where the nearest pizza joint is.

Which gives humanity plenty of reason to be hopeful about the future.

Look, 25 years ago when my family drove to the beach every summer, we had only one way to seek directions on the highway: my trusty CB radio. My handle was "Trail Blazer," good buddy.

Why did we have a CB in our car? Because of solid state transistor technology, an innovation from the 1970's that replaced the old tube technology. Solid state transistors allowed CBs to be made smaller and cheaper, which is how a 12-year-old kid called Trail Blazer could afford one.

The CB saved my family on more than one occasion. The truckers helped us keep an eye out for Smokey. And when we needed crucial information, I'd pick up the mike and say, "We're at the 64 mile marker headed east on the Turnpike, good buddies. How far to the nearest bathroom!"

Now we have GPS devices that know exactly where we are and where we need to go. For less than a couple hundred bucks, any old fool has nearly as much navigational capacity as the U.S. military did last time it went into Iraq.

If you're not amazed by that you should be. I'm 45. I still marvel at the technology advances that have occurred in my lifetime.

In 1985 I worked for a high-tech firm and had access to one of the first portable computers in existence. It was the size of a large suitcase and had very little computing capacity.

Today, I sit in a coffee shop pecking away on a small laptop computer. It has more computing capacity than a mainframe machine did 30 years ago — one that took up a whole city block.

I use my cell phone to call anybody around the globe. My computer, via a broadband cellular modem, is continually connected to the Internet. I'm able to access and share reams of information with people all over the planet.

And if I need to find any location anywhere on earth, I just consult my handheld GPS device.

I'm puzzled by folks who see only gloom and doom when it is such an amazing time to be alive. I can't imagine how many more advances we'll make in the next 25 years, but they're coming. We're going to solve a lot of problems.

I'll bet we'll look back to our current problems and laugh at how they once kept us up at night.

Know what I mean, good buddy?

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  • Guest

    Very up-lifting article!  But, I wonder?  My friend has a Lexus Navigational System that is touted as very simple to use.  Six months later and after watching a cd and reading the manual several times, we still find it difficult to use.  While I agree that we live in an age of amazing technological advancements, I'm not so sure that they have made life "simpler' and less "stressfull"  I see and hear about more people struggling with their cell phones, especially when driving, frustrated and angry with their computers, fed up with listening to umpteen options on the telephone before you get to talk to a real person, etc, etc.  I kinda liked it better when life was simpler, and I could walk to the nearest pizza restaurant.

  • Guest

    It really is mind-boggling in how we've advanced electronically. That's why we don't bother to think that much about it. To paraphrase one of G.K. Chesterton's paradoxes – nothing is more boring than the constant advances in science and nothing is more fascinating than traditional constancy.

    This GPS certainly has my interest. I'm collecting feedback until the price feels really comfortable. At that point I will buy one for my wife or daughter because, of course, I don't need one.

    I also don't see why Tom needs one working on his laptop and sipping latte, unless he keeps changing coffee shops. In that case I say: be adventurous, man!

  • Guest

    Since I am seriously directionally challenged, my GPS has changed my life. My husband, who is a traffic engineer, questioned my need to buy a GPS. But, this summer, he was convinced of its merits. While leaving the Chicago Botanical Gardens at 8:35 p.m., my husband noticed a very low tire on our car. While he was pondering what to do, I plugged into the GPS the name of the tire. Just the name. A service center 2.4 miles away with phone number appeared on the screen. We called. The person on the other end did not know the location of Botanical Gardens in relation to his store, but assured us that if we got there by 8:45 p.m. they would fix or replace our tire. We did. They did. Problem solved.


  • Guest

    Haven't we had a GPS for two thousand years? — Global Positioning Savior?  Tells me where I'm at, where to go, and how to get there! 

  • Guest



    According to the graph (pictured above) you are speeding.

    72 mph is quite fast for someone who isn't sure about their directions!

    Of course, your CB good buddies will warn you about any "Smokies" ahead.


    BTW, I hear there is a GPS device available now that permits you to track down anyone by entering their cell phone number.  This could be scary for teens and great for parents.



  • Guest

    I love my Garmin Nuvi!  It is very intuitive to use — I haven't even read the owner's manual.  BlueRidge, if it's not too late for your friend to return his, maybe he should.

  • Guest

    As a professional land surveyor, GPS is one of the tools in my box.  I have been monitoring the development of the system off and on for about 20 years.  It is actually a rather simple concept; intersecting radio signals (with distances derived from them from satellites).


    One thing that really bugs me though – no one purchases a Global Positioning System (GPS)!  That would mean that you purchased 24 satellites (there are actually 32 or more now, not including the Russian system), along with ground based monitoring systems, employees and a network of support both in the civilian and military sector.  Even Bill Gates couldn't afford that.  You did however, purchase a GPS receiver.  I know, I am being petty.


    There is a downside to this, as has been evidenced in the news recently.  When folks rely more and more on GPS technology, they will get lazy and stop paying attention.  For example, people often venture into the wilderness unprepared, with the false knowledge that their GPS will bring them out alive.  There is also a big liability potential when GPS doesn't do what everyone thinks it should.


    My two cents.

  • Guest

    GPS is a man's dream.   Always know where I am and NEVER have to ask for directions again.  Ahhhhhh.  

  • Guest

    I have used the navigation systems in rental cars and have found them very helpful if you have the exact info you need. (Missed Mass one Sunday night when inputted (is that a word?) the wrong city in the Phoenix area and ended up in an industrial area instead of the college that had a Sunday night Mass Surprised) I have a much bigger question, what's the deal with guys and directions? If you have to ask the GPS reciever, aren't you still asking for help? Ahh, the big questions of life!