Moving in the Right Direction

By Purcell, Tom | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 6, 2008 | Go to article overview

Moving in the Right Direction


Purcell, Tom, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


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

I got a handheld Global Positioning System (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 any place nearby, it provides phone numbers and addresses. Then a female voice tells me exactly where to drive (a female is used 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, which was sent into space by the Soviets -- when they 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 to 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 composed 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 important, 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 1950s that replaced the old vacuum-tube technology. …

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