Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Who Invented GPS? Is a Patent Ruckus Brewing Over the Claimed Invention of GPS Navigation Technology and the Attendant Patent 3,789,409 ?

Who invented GPS?

The question is an important one because it has a disputed answer and as such throws light on the question of what kinds of things should be patentable
-- or, stated more generally --
should private persons be able to patent "claimed" parts of inventions which, as a whole, were demonstrably designed by many people and financed by billion-dollar outlays by the United States government?

This question applies to a lot of the government-funded research at universities which in the past has led to private persons obtaining patent monopolies by which they subsequently rip off the taxpaying citizenry and establish vast technological empires - originally paid for by Uncle Sam, as the nation itself flounders for cash while private interests swim in patent monopoly money.

This flawed patent system must -- in our opinion -- be changed to reflect the reality that purely "individual" inventions are rare in the modern technical world and that much recent human progress is a large team effort, based on vast amounts of prior art,  from which private individuals should not unduly profit. Stated otherwise, many of the patents now in private hands but actually reflecting "government work" should probably be in the hands of the US government -- a situation which would greatly reduce the tax burdens of U.S. citizens.

In any case, according to the April 7, 2010 posting True Story of GPS Yet to Be Told at GPS World, a ruckus appeared to be brewing over the origins of GPS technology and the May 1, 2010 posting at GPS World by Stephen T. Powers and Brad Parkinson titled The Origins of GPS: And the Pioneers Who Launched the System (Part I) confirmed that assessment, writing:
"We call this a tribute to the almost-forgotten people whose intellectual labor and skill initially developed GPS. As we unveil this story, we will point out the original — and critical — system study, the 1966 Woodford/Nakamura Report, that became the essential blueprint for GPS. Many people are unaware of this study since, in its original form, it was classified U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Secret. It was not declassified until August 1979, more than a year after the first launch of a GPS operational satellite in February 1978...

As early as 1962, Dr. Ivan Getting, president of the Aerospace Corporation, saw the need for a new satellite-based navigation system. He envisioned a more accurate positioning system that would be available in three dimensions, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He had direct access to the highest levels of the Pentagon and was a tireless advocate for his vision....

By 1962, engineers at Aerospace, under Air Force sponsorship, were heavily immersed in studying the system aspects of a new navigational satellite system. From 1964 to 1966, Aerospace carried out an extensive, formal system study whose principal authors were James Woodford and Hideyoshi Nakamura, both highly regarded space-systems engineers.
Their work was summarized as a DoD secret briefing in August 1966. As a result of the classification, it was unavailable to anyone outside the project until 13 years later, in 1979, when it was finally declassified (figure 4)....

In October 1970, more than four years after the completion of this study, Roger Easton of NRL applied for a patent on the two-satellite, ρ-ρ technique (option N) that required an atomic clock for the user and was only two-dimensional. The patent (U.S. 3,789,409) was granted in 1974, a year after the three-dimensional design of the GPS system had already been defined in the Lonely Halls Pentagon meeting to be described later....

In 1964, the U.S. Navy initiated a second satellite program, named Timation, under the direction of Roger L. Easton, Sr., a long-time member of the NRL staff. The NRL’s Timation project was aimed at exploring techniques for passive ranging to satellites, as well as time transfer between various timing centers around the world. This project ran parallel to, and was in competition with, the Air Force Program. It subsequently developed a number of experimental satellites, the first of which was called Timation 1. This small satellite, weighing 85 pounds and producing 6 watts of power, was launched on May 27, 1967....

Recently an article appeared that implied that the GPS design was essentially the same as Timation. (“In what ways did GPS improve on Timation?” Easton: “I can’t think of any ways in which GPS improved on Timation. Essentially, they are the same system.” Interview in High Frontier magazine.)

Aware that this incorrect statement denigrated the people who had first analyzed, advocated, and demonstrated the fundamental concept, as well as built the system, Parkinson resolved to correct the record, and highlight the names of those who deserve credit. This is a major purpose of this article. This article has been reviewed and approved for veracity by virtually all the key figures (still alive) who actually designed, built, and tested GPS."
On October 8, 1970 Roger L. Easton filed a patent application for a Navigation System Using Satellites and Passive Ranging Techniques, for which a patent was issued on January 29, 1974 by the USPTO as U.S. Patent Number 3,789,409. The patent abstract provided:
"A navigation system wherein the navigator's location is obtained by determining the navigator's distance (or range) from one or more satellites of known location. Each satellite transmits multifrequency signals that are derived from a stable oscillator which is phase synchronized with the navigator's equipment that produces similar multifrequency signals. Phase comparison between the signals received from the satellites and the locally produced signals indicates both the distance between the navigator and the satellites and the navigator's location. In determining his location, the presence of the navigator is not revealed since no interrogatory transmission by him is required."
So who really "invented" GPS? One man? Hardly.

We recommend a reading of The Origins of GPS at GPS World.

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