What universal digital service is essential to the world’s infrastructure and our daily lives? Yes, the Internet, but more fundamentally, the Global Positioning System.
Obsessed with the Internet, which depends on GPS, the media has paid little attention, but journalist Milner (Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, 2009, etc.) remedies this with an admirable popular science introduction, one of the first about GPS. Navigation is an ancient obsession, but Milner dates pinpoint navigation to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. Although considered a national humiliation for the United States, it galvanized American scientists, who quickly discovered that one could use the satellite’s radio signals to precisely find one’s location. This concept attracted significant attention from the Navy, which needed an accurate fix for its missile submarines. By 1960, satellites of its pioneering Transit network were operating, although they were expensive, slow, and imprecise. During the 1970s, the U.S. military created a top-notch, multibillion-dollar satellite system entirely reserved for its own use. In 1983, after a Korean Airlines flight strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down, killing 269 people, President Ronald Reagan made GPS available for civilian use. During the 1990s, the weight and cost of receivers limited their use to shippers and airlines, but after 2000, both had shrunk enough to be a routine feature on cellphones. Thanks to Milner’s narrative, readers will learn the technical details without too much effort and marvel at its value, which extends to astronomy, meteorology, seismology, criminology, and agriculture. The author also offers the obligatory warnings about its vulnerability to sabotage, less-than-perfect turn-by-turn advice, and ruination of our sense of direction from allowing technology to navigate for us.
Milner has done his homework, assuring readers will be satisfied, educated, and occasionally amazed.