Learn the History of GPS From Its Founders

Interviews with the technology’s pioneers were made possible thanks to a donation to the IEEE History Center

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The 2019 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering was awarded to Richard Schwartz, Bradford Parkinson, James Spilker, Hugo Fruehauf [pictured, from left] for their work on the Global Positioning System (GPS).
The four fathers of the Global Positioning System (from left) Richard Schwartz, Bradford Parkinson, James Spilker, Hugo Fruehauf at the 2019 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering award ceremony in London .
Photo: QEPrize

THE INSTITUTE The IEEE History Center’s Engineering and Technology History Wiki now contains oral histories from all four fathers of GPS, thanks to Richard and Nancy Gowen’s generous gift to the IEEE Foundation’s IEEE History Center Fund. Richard Gowen, an IEEE Life Fellow, served as the 1984 IEEE president and is president emeritus of the IEEE Foundation. The IEEE History Center in 1999 had interviewed GPS founder Brad Parkinson.

The Gowens’ gift enables the center to complete its GPS collection with oral histories from the three other principal architects—James Spilker, Richard Schwartz, and Hugo Fruehauf.

Oral histories provide spoken commentaries through recorded interviews and represent a primary source of raw data that contributes to historical narratives.

“They capture memories of those who participated in historical events that might not otherwise be represented in other forms of historical documents,” says Michael Geselowitz, senior director of the IEEE History Center.

Parkinson was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and in 1972 was appointed the program manager of Project 621B, which developed, built, and launched the first GPS satellites. He received the 2018 IEEE Medal of Honor for his role in the invention of the technology.

Spilker was a cofounder of Stanford Telecommunications, in Sunnyvale, Calif., and executive chairman of AOSense, also in Sunnyvale. Spilker received the 2015 IEEE Edison Medal “for contributions to the technology and implementation of civilian GPS navigation systems.” He died in 2019.

Nancy and Richard GowenNancy and Richard Gowen

Schwartz was the GPS satellite program manager at Rockwell and part of Parkinson’s team. Freuhauf also worked for Rockwell and was a key member of the company’s Apollo program and chief engineer for the design and development of the GPS satellite from 1973 to 1978.

Based on their “groundbreaking engineering innovation, which is of global benefit to humanity,” Freuhauf, Parkinson, Schwartz, and Spilker received the 2019 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

The Gowens say they are proud to help the IEEE Foundation capture the important testimonies for posterity.

“Congratulations to the four gentlemen on the completion of their oral histories within the IEEE History Center’s GPS Collection,” Richard Gowen says. “We thank you for your vision and tenacity in enabling the ability to locate a position on the globe with pinpoint accuracy and then to travel to another position. Nancy and I are pleased to have had the opportunity to sponsor the recognition of these four gentlemen for their leadership in providing the global positioning satellite system.”

The IEEE History Center boasts more than 800 oral histories and over 20 collections including Women in Computing, Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Recipients, and Human Space Travel.

The History Center relies on donor support to preserve, research, and promote the legacy of electrical engineering and computing. It benefits from donations to the IEEE Foundation’s Realize the Full Potential of IEEE campaign.

Karen Kaufman is senior manager of communications for theIEEE Foundation.

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