Demo One Bradford Parkinson
Father of GPS
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School, graduating in 1952. Parkinson has credited his
experiences at the Breck School for inspiring in him an early
love of math and science, an interest that eventually became
his life's calling.

In 2003 Parkinson was award the Draper Prize for his
contributions to GPS, along with
Ivan Getting, the long-time
chairman of the Aerospace Corporation. The award is a
$500,000 cash prize, and is considered the Nobel Prize of
engineering. In addition, in 2004 Parkinson was inducted into
the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his contributions.
Today, Parkinson lives in San Luis Obispo, California, a small
city located halfway between San Jose and Los Angeles. He is
married to Virginia “Ginny” Parkinson, with whom he has one
child. He also has five children from a previous marriage, as
well as six grandchildren.

Parkinson attended the United States Naval Academy,
graduating in 1957 with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering.
While studying there, Parkinson discovered he had a deep
interest in controls engineering, which was not a research
focus of the Navy at that time. Fortunately, one of Parkinson's
electrical engineering professors was an Air Force officer, and
urged him to consider switching military branches. Parkinson
also knew he wanted to get a Ph. D. later in life, and the Air
Force was more receptive to graduate and post-graduate
education at this time. For these reasons, Parkinson accepted
a commission in the Air Force rather than the Navy after

Immediately after graduation, Parkinson's superiors offered to
send him to study in MIT's “Course Sixteen” a well-known
aeronautics and astronautics program. However, having just
joined the Air Force, Parkinson decided that he would prefer to
spend some time on regular duty to get a feel for the branch.
After two years in Southeast Asia, he did matriculate into the
MIT program, studying controls engineering, inertial guidance,
and electrical engineering.   Interestingly, Parkinson worked in
the lab of Charles Stark Draper, the namesake for the
prestigious Draper Prize that Parkinson went on to win later in
his life.   After two years of study, Parkinson graduated with a
Master of Science in Aeronautics in 1961.

Parkinson was then assigned to work at Central Inertial
Guidance Test Facility at Holloman Air Force Base in
Alamogordo, New Mexico. There he continued to study inertial
guidance and electrical and controls engineering, gaining a
deep understanding of both the academic issues at hand and
their application to the actual battlefield. After three years at
Holloman, Parkinson was assigned to a Ph. D. program at
Stanford University, graduating in 1966.

After graduating from the Naval Academy, Parkinson opted to
perform regular Air Force duty in order to, as he put it, “find
out what the Air Force was all about”. He served two years as
a chief Communications-Electronics officer at an early warning
station Southeast Asia, and then was sent back to the United
States in order to continue his education at MIT. Parkinson
again returned to combat duty in Vietnam in 1969, after
finishing his Ph. D. at Stanford. His assignment was to refine
and improve the AC-130 Spectre gunship, and he was sent to
the field in order to gain an understanding of how the
technology performed in real-life situations. During this period,
he logged more than 170 hours of combat missions, and was
awarded a number of military honors including the Bronze Star,
Legion of Honor, Meritorious Service Medal and a Presidential
Unit Citation. Over the course of his life, Parkinson served
twenty-one years in the Air Force, from 1957 to 1978. He
retired at the rank of colonel.

In 1973, thanks in part to the influence of his mentor, General
William W. Dunn, Parkinson was assigned to a nascent Air
Force program called 621B. This program was a navigation-
focused collaboration between the Aerospace Corporation and
the Air Force, with most of the technology being owned by
Aerospace. Though the technology interested Parkinson, at
first he was reluctant to join the program, as he did not want to
give up his directorship of another Air Force project. However,
he was assigned anyway, and he quickly made himself the de
facto manager of the operation. After several months the Air
Force recognized his drive and interest in the project – as well
as his background and skill-set – and made him the director.
When Parkinson first took over 621B, the program was in its
earliest stages, with most of the work being theoretical.

Naturally, Parkinson's sterling technical background proved to
be a tremendous asset during this period. However, as the
project gained momentum, Parkinson's responsibilities shifted
to managing the program, and, perhaps most importantly,
ensuring that the Pentagon and Congress were fully
supportive of the initiative. His political and managerial skills
were invaluable to the success of the program, demonstrating
a rare combination of excellence in both the technical and non-
technical domains. In 1978, the first working prototype of a
GPS system was launched, and Parkinson's years of effort
were validated. 621B transitioned to the larger NAVISTAR
program, and, rather than taking an administrative position at
the Pentagon, Parkinson decided to retire from the Air Force.
After retiring from the Air Force, Parkinson spent one year
teaching, but then decided to enter the private sector. He first
was appointed Vice President of the Space Systems Group at
Rockwell International, Inc., where he was involved in
developing the space shuttle. Following his work at Rockwell,
Parkinson joined Intermeteics, a software company based in
Boston. Parkinson was a vice president at Intermetrics, and
was heavily involved in taking the company public in 1982.
1984, Parkinson accepted a research position at Stanford
University. However, Parkinson later returned to the private
sector in 1999, where he served as the acting CEO of Trimble
Navigation, a producer of advanced positioning systems.

Today, Parkinson sits on the boards of several large
navigation-related companies, including Trimble Navigation,
EMS, and Navigation Technology Ventures.
Early in his career, Parkinson was an academic instructor
for test pilots at the United States Air Force Academy in
Colorado Springs, but soon moved on to other projects.
Immediately after retiring from the Air Force, Parkinson
returned to Colorado, taking a position teaching mechanical
engineering at Colorado State University. However, after
only one year, Parkinson's budding academic career was
cut short by his detour into the private sector. After five
years outside of academia, however, Parkinson returned to
his alma mater Stanford, where he became research
professor focused on GPS and related technologies. After
several years, he was given tenure, and was named to the
endowed "Edward C. Wells" Chair of Aeronautics and
Astronautics. Beyond his research duties, Parkinson was
also an active and well-liked teacher, creating and leading
the popular “Managing Innovation” course. Today,
Parkinson is a professor emeritus at Stanford.
Beginning with the Sputnik launch in 1957, there was
awareness in the aeronautical and military communities that
some type of satellite-based navigation system was
technically feasible – and even likely, in some form. The
United States Navy experimented with the technology early
on, launching a network of navigational satellites named
Transit in 1960. TRANSIT was mainly used for tracking
ICBMs on submarines, and was limited to two dimensions. In
addition, the accuracy was limited to two miles, which, at
that time, was considered to be near the theoretical limit of
the technology.
Throughout the 1960s, work continued on navigational
satellites. Several additional projects were launched at a
variety of different organizations, including the Aerospace
Corporation, a non-profit R&D laboratory in the United
States, the Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Naval
Surface Weapons Center. However, each organization
operated independently, and, given the potential military
significance of the technology, a certain amount of secrecy
marked the projects. In addition, the early results of high-
accuracy testing were not entirely encouraging. Indeed, the
Pentagon was publicly skeptical of satellite-based
navigation systems, as they believed the accuracy would
always be too poor to be of substantial value.
GPS works on the principle of triangulation. Given an
arbitrary point on a plane, and given its distance from three
unique points whose locations are known, one can
calculate the exact location of point. The same principle
applies in three dimensions, though one requires four, non-
coplanar points. In GPS, the given point is a GPS
transmitter located in a car, airplane, or cell phone. The
points with known locations are the GPS satellites orbiting

In order for GPS to be accurate, several technical
capabilities are necessary. First, one needs sufficiently
many satellites to provide good coverage of the globe. At
any given time and place, at least four satellites must be
above the horizon for GPS to function (though more results
in greater accuracy). Today's GPS system uses twenty-four
satellites in a variety of orbits approximately 11,000 miles
from Earth, together giving very good coverage of most

Second, one needs a reliable communications system
between the GPS transmitter and the satellites. Initially, this
was a large obstacle to the creation of GPS units for civilian
purposes, with the cheapest transmitters costing $10,000.

Over time, the price has fallen, with standalone GPS
transmitters commonly available today for less than $100.
Third, one needs to be able to know with a high degree of
accuracy where each satellite is at any given time. This
requires sophisticated software models and computers
powerful enough to run them. Since each satellite must
“know” where it is for the system to work, this also requires
computers small enough to be placed in orbit. Though
today this is trivial, with a typical cell phone capable of the
necessary calculations, in the 1960s this was considered a
significant obstacle.
Fourth, and most importantly, one must have a reliable
method of determining the distance between a GPS
transmitter and a satellite. This is accomplished by sending a
radio signal from one to the other, then waiting for a reply,
and counting the time that elapses. When the transmitter and
the satellite are farther
apart, the send-reply cycle takes more time, and when they
are closer it takes less. The linchpin in this system is an
extremely accurate timing mechanism, as an inaccuracy of only
a few milliseconds could result in a calculation error of dozens
of miles. In order to overcome this issue, the NAVSTAR
satellites have atomic clocks on board, each accurate to a few
nanoseconds. Though the first atomic clock was built in 1949,
the technology was both crude and bulky initially, providing
another source of doubt early on in the 621B project.

Though initially viewed with skepticism, GPS has become a
ubiquitous and life-changing technology. It is critical to the
military operations of both the United States and many foreign
countries, providing navigational information to everything from
ground infantry units to guided missiles. In addition, GPS has
been incorporated into a broad range of civilian applications.
Most current cell phones, for example, include transmitters,
enabling block-by-block directions for pedestrians and drivers
alike. Civilian airplanes have also incorporated GPS
transmitters, providing another component in airplanes'
sophisticated navigational systems. Indeed, with the help of
GPS, airplanes are now capable of performing landings on
autopilot, and doing so with better precision and safety than
human pilots.

Moreover, GPS's effects on society are still developing. One
application that is currently being developed is earthquake
detection and measurement. Given appropriate transmitting
equipment, GPS is capable of pinpointing locations to the
thickness of a pencil lead, enabling scientists to gather data to
complement what is available from seismographs. Additionally,
the highly accurate timing systems integral to GPS are
beginning to see use in internet and web technologies,
enabling more efficient network communications. Altogether, it
is hard to overstate the impact that GPS has had on the
modern world.
Bradford Parkinson was born in
Madison, Wisconsin on February 16,
1935, but grew up in Minneapolis,
Minnesota.  He is the only son of
Herbert Parkinson, an architect who
was also an alumnus of MIT. For his
secondary education, the younger
Parkinson attended the Breck School,
then a small, all-boys preparatory .
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