GPS: The birth of the commercial GPS industry and how it changed the world

December 4, 2023  - By
Charlie Trimble provides the 4000A GPS Locator to the Smithsonian Museum. Introduced in 1984, it was the first commercial GPS positioning product. (Image: Smithsonian)

Charlie Trimble provides the 4000A GPS Locator to the Smithsonian Museum. Introduced in 1984, it was the first commercial GPS positioning product. (Image: Smithsonian)

Trimble Navigation, which had started out making Loran receivers, was looking for its next marine project when HP decided to cancel its GPS project. Budget problems in Washington put completion of GPS in doubt. However, encouraging words from Brad Parkinson were enough for Trimble Navigation to buy the canceled project.

The purchase included a stack 14-ft high of unclassified reading material and a breadboard that fit on the table of a mobile home. It was a working GPS receiver that had recorded the mobile home’s position as it was driven around freeways in the San Francisco area. It took 12 months for a team of two engineers and 15 consultants to come up with the seven breakthroughs needed for the block diagram. Trimble was to iterate this block diagram on an 18-month cycle to follow Moore’s Law cost curve to the $100 required for car navigation. It took another year to build six rack-mounted multichannel receivers.

In October 1984, Trimble sold the first receiver for $100,000. Then came the sale of 20 OEM single channel timing receivers. The oil service industry was an important early market. At the time there were only seven GPS satellites in the sky and applications were limited to 3-4 hrs/day of accurate position measurement. Accuracy was a market driver, which led to the development of differential systems. These provided meter accuracies over wide areas. The next and far more difficult step was enabling a 1st order survey — which required accuracies of 1 cm/km.

Meanwhile, next gen GPS was added to Trimble’s marine Loran-C receiver and the company produced aviation receivers for the commercial markets. In January 1986, Trimble licensed its GPS technology for the Japanese car navigation market to Pioneer.
Then came the Shuttle disaster, and a new rocket had to be designed to launch more satellites. With only seven satellites in the sky and an unknowable time for rocket development, GPS use for navigation was off the table. Getting carrier phase 1st order products to work became critical for Trimble’s survival. In May of 1986, Trimble shipped an order of seven survey systems to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). Earthquake monitoring was a niche market add-on. Another “bet your company” deal was a Japanese order of 25 dual frequency systems.

During this time Trimble started to realize GPS was more than a device — that time-stamping events and geo-tagging things made it a valuable information technology component. The real value was in the information. By 2000, the Hong Kong price of the GPS function in quantities of a million devices a month was $1. GPS became ubiquitous and a fundamental component of a thriving information technology market.

GPS started out as a real-time worldwide system for navigation. It is now an indispensable part of modern life. GPS has truly changed our world.

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About the Author: Charles R. Trimble

Charles “Charlie” Trimble co-founded Trimble in November 1978 and was the company’s CEO until 1998. From 1995 to 2016 he was the chair of the GPS Industry Council.