Honoring the Passing of GPS Pioneer James Spilker, Jr.

19 Dec 2019

GPS pioneer, James Spilker, Jr., died at the age of 86. An adjunct professor of astronautics and aeronautics, he was a primary figure who developed the technology Global Positioning System (GPS). He was also a generous philanthropist.

During his long career, Spilker made many advances in technology, but what he might be best known for is his 1970s development of the GPS coarse/acquisition (CA) signals. Today, it’s the gateway for around four billion GPS users. And, the development of his “delay-lock loop” process in the early 1960s, became important to GPS accuracy.

After the launch of GPS, it assisted the U.S. military in improving its navigation and after that, contributed immensely to mobile mapping applications. Today, almost 50 years later, the GPS signals designed and proposed by Jim in the 1970s continue to be used in everything from banking to GPS tracking devices for parolees, Alzheimer’s patients and more to monitoring glaciers and tectonic plates.

Spilker was:

  • Formally positioned in the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame
  • Inducted to the Air Force GPS Hall of Fame
  • Elected member of the National Academy of Engineering

He was a Fellow of the Institute of Navigation (ION) and a Life Fellow of the IEEE. As one of the GPS originators, he shared in the Goddard Memorial Trophy.

The Power of the American Global Positioning System (GPS)

Today, billions of individuals worldwide rely on a large engineering infrastructure that reaches out across the world and into space. It allows anybody with a smartphone to see precisely where they are on the planet, along with the exact time and is used in applications ranging from banking and aviation safety to locating and rescuing distressed ships. GPS, which is the planet’s first global satellite radio navigation system, made this possible.

GPS offers location data for SatNav and Google Maps users and you can apply it to everything from the guidance of humanitarian supplies into conflict zones to precision farming with tractors guided by GPS. GPS has transformed precision timing and navigation and is important for today’s:

  • Smartphones
  • Transportation services
  • Banking and science
  • Food production

In February 2019, Spilker and his wife celebrated the news that he and his colleagues Hugo Fruehauf, Brad Parkinson and Richard Schwartz were going to receive the most respected engineering award worldwide, the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, for their groundbreaking work on GPS.

Sadly, Jim died before the Buckingham Palace’s formal Queen Elizabeth Prize ceremony on December 3, 2019, so his wife completed his journey without him. Before his death, however, he and his wife spoke at length about how honored he was to be receiving this award.

He was extremely grateful for being recognized for the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. He said he hoped it would inspire other people to go after and achieve greatness in their fields and receive the same type of recognition by the public at large as well as their peers. He believed engineering technology is an important catalyst for worldwide changes that benefit humanity.

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