As It Happens

Engineer who helped invent GPS reflects on the technology's massive role in modern life

Hugo Fruehauf and his colleagues won a prestigious prize Tuesday for creating the Global Positioning System 40 years ago. He says in spite of GPS-related privacy concerns, the technology is an important part of society today.

Hugo Fruehauf and his colleagues win Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for their work

Hugo Fruehauf accepting the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for his role co-creating the Global Positioning System (GPS). (Courtesy of Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation)

Hugo Fruehauf says it has been wonderful to watch the way GPS has grown from an American military technology into something that's integral to people's everyday lives.

Fruehauf and his colleagues Bradford Parkinson, James Spilker, and Richard Schwartz were awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering on Tuesday for their work in creating the GPS, or Global Positioning System.

The technology is used today by many for navigational purposes — be it cross-country road trips, giving directions to get to a friend's house, or figuring out where the nearest coffee shop is within walking distance.

"It's a wonderful world, because you can receive an award for something that's 40 years old," Fruehauf told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Left to right: Richard Schwartz, Bradford Parkinson, James Spilker and Fruehauf. (Photos courtesy of Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation)

The origin of the GPS in the United States goes back to the mid-1960s. After the Second World War, the U.S. government wanted to prevent collateral damage in military attacks during future warfare, and strike with accuracy, Fruehauf said.

In 1978, the U.S. launched the first satellite for the GPS. But for years, only the military benefited from the ground-breaking technology.

Fruehauf said that the government "degraded" the commercial GPS signal out of concern that citizens would use the technology to cause harm.

"The world really didn't know much about how good GPS could be for the world," he said.

An artist's rendition of a GPS satellite orbiting the Earth. Fruehauf says that 32 GPS satellites currently orbit our planet. (Lockheed Martin)

In 2000, the U.S. government, under the Clinton administration, lifted the restrictions on the commercial signal. Overnight on May 1, accurate GPS technology became available to the whole world.

Since then, other entities have developed their own satellite navigation systems, including China's BeiDou and Galileo from the European Union.

Two decades of evolution, and troubles

Fruehauf said it's great to see the way his invention has evolved since the beginning of the millennium.

Back in the '80s, GPS receivers would have been about the size of a backpack, he said. With the rapid evolution of the cellphone industry and the move towards miniaturization, it's now "a little chip that's in my watch."

"That's a wonderful way that technology combined to make GPS what it is today," he said.

Over the years, many have discussed the ways GPS technology could be exploited to violate privacy.

In December, a New York Times report found Facebook gave third-party companies access to the GPS co-ordinates of users who installed the company's mobile app, without their consent.

Fruehauf says that "all great things" that start off with innocent intentions are susceptible to being exploited for malicious purposes.

"If we were to be afraid, whether it's GPS or internet or anything else, to light up a system, so to speak, because it can end up being used for the wrong purposes — I don't think we'd ever accomplish anything," he said.

"Do we sacrifice these good things for the bad? ... That's a decision that's tough."

Potentially unsung heroes

Though it was Fruehauf, Parkinson, Schwartz, and Spilker who were invited to the stage in London to accept their award, they didn't create the technology alone.

Gladys West, a U.S. mathematician, is also widely credited as being part of a team of mathematicians who developed algorithms used by satellites to map the shape of the Earth — work that helped bring the GPS to fruition.

Of her absence, Fruehauf said this is a common circumstance where, often, "the leaders, the people that came up with the ideas" receive the accolades.

He refers to his own team of 54 people who worked "day and night" for the length of the project: "Generally, there probably is a thousand people that probably should get some kind of accolades."

Written by Zahraa Hmood with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.