When Was the GPS Invented?

by Kim Kenney

GPS, which stands for global positioning system, has become extremely popular as a personal navigation system. Elements used to create GPS were developed as early as 1959, but it would be several decades before the technology was fully operational. Today, GPS units are readily available and affordable to the public. They have even inspired a new pastime called "geocaching," a kind of treasure hunt in which participants use a handheld GPS to locate a "geocache" containing a logbook and trinkets.

Before GPS

Ancient mariners relied on a compass and the stars to guide them. A sextant was used to measure the angles of the sun, moon and stars to help navigate. In the 20th century, radio waves were also used as a navigation system.


The military first came up with the idea for the GPS system in 1973. The first satellite, called NAVSTAR 1 (an acronym for Navigation Satellite Timing and Ranging), was launched in 1978.


In 1993, the U.S. Air Force launched the final satellite needed to complete the system of 24 satellites orbiting the Earth. Several additional satellites have been launched since then to enhance and refine the GPS system.


Although it was developed for military purposes, civilians can also enjoy GPS technology. A number of companies produce GPS units for the public, and some cars and boats are equipped with them.

Atomic Clocks

The same technology used to create the GPS system also led to the development of the atomic clock, which is accurate to a billionth of a second.


GPS units are often a target for thieves. Never leave your GPS unit or its mount in your vehicle. Cars have been broken into based solely on the ring left on the windshield from the GPS mount. A friction mount sits on the dashboard and does not leave a mark.

About the Author

I have been a professional historian, museum curator, and author for more than a decade. I have served as the Museums Editor at BellaOnline since 2004. I am qualified to serve as an expert in a variety of historical topics. My expertise includes the Victorian Age and McKinley's presidency, the Roaring Twenties, the 1950s, the flu, museum studies, material culture, architecture, and more. I have a BA in history and an MA in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Please see my bio on my employer's website for more: http://www.mckinleymuseum.org/speakers_bureau/speaker/2

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