Lighthouses on land and in the sky

December 11, 2023  - By
Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio

When Boston Light — an 89 ft-high, white lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston’s outer harbor — opened in September 1716, it was the first one in the Thirteen Colonies. Sally Snowman, who has been its keeper for most of the past two decades, is the last official lighthouse keeper in the United States. Contemplating the horrible trips across the Atlantic on merchants’ galleons, when many gale-tossed passengers despaired of ever setting foot on land again, she recently commented: “Imagine what they felt when they spotted the light.” See Dorothy Wickenden’s article “Last Watch” in the November 6, issue of my favorite magazine, The New Yorker. Of the roughly 850 lighthouses currently in the United States, Wickenden reported, only about half serve as active aids to navigation and the U.S. Coast Guard has automated all of them. “The rest,” Wickenden wrote, “have been made obsolete by GPS.” Yet, she pointed out, even hardheaded ship captains and pilots say that “lighthouses still have a place.”

When Snowman retires at the end of this month, it will mark the end of an era that lasted more than three centuries. This month also marks the 50th anniversary of the approval of Navstar GPS (as it was originally called) by the Defense Systems Acquisition Review Council (DSARC) of the U.S. Department of Defense. Three months earlier, at the meeting now remembered as Lonely Halls (see my editorial in the September issue), Brad Parkinson and his team had made the key decisions about the system’s architecture, including the number of satellites, their orbits, and what kinds of signals to use.

In this month’s issue, we revisit how, after initial opposition, the U.S. armed forces adopted GPS; how the civilian/commercial GPS (now GNSS) industry was born; and how surveyors reacted to this disruptive new technology.

To answer the first question, I asked Gaylord Green, who was on Parkinson’s team and later led the GPS Joint Program Office, to write his recollections on the subject. I also interviewed Marty Faga, whose long and distinguished career included four years as both Director, National Reconnaissance Office and Assistant Secretary for Space, U.S. Air Force. Faga passed away on October 19. To answer the second question, I turned to Charlie Trimble, who in 1978 co-founded the company named after him and was its CEO until 1998. To answer the third question, I chose Dave Zilkoski, who earned a master’s degree in geodetic science in 1979, the year after the first GPS satellite was deployed, while working for the National Geodetic Survey, of which he was later the director for about three years. Many readers of this magazine also know Zilkoski as the regular contributor to one of our four digital newsletters, Survey Scene.

This issue’s cover story also focuses, in part, on the 50th anniversary of GPS, as seen by three large players in the aerospace industry: Spirent, BAE Systems, and Northrop Grumman.

Matteo Luccio | Editor-in-Chief

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at or 541-543-0525.