From coconuts to GPS: A brief history of navigation

It's good, but it's no coconut. Image: Getty.

If I ask Google:

It helpfully displays a map of where I used to live:

Google is very good at knowing where I used to be. My phone is constantly keeping track of my location and uploading it to their servers. It has stored my location 579,088 times since September 2013.

Each location stored looks like this:

{
 “timestampMs” : “1431497952458”,
 “latitudeE7” : 513453840,
 “longitudeE7” : -1015043,
 “accuracy” : 27,
}

This isn’t that easy to read. The E7 is an instruction to divide by 10,000,000, to reach a traditional set of latitude and longitude coordinates. “timestampMs” tells us that wherever 51.345384° N -0.1015043° E is, I was there at 1,4314,9795,2458 milliseconds after midnight on the 1st January 1970.

Even knowing what each of those numbers represent, we need to do some work to get these back into a human context. By putting the numbers through mapping software I can find out that “51.345384°, -0.1015043°” is Purley Oaks station in South Croydon. By running the timestamp through a conversion system, I can see I was apparently there at 7:19:12 AM on the 13 May 2015. This makes perfect sense, it was part of my daily commute at the time — I’d have been there most days at that time.

Most of the data stored about my location places me somewhere I lived or somewhere I worked. Just occasionally, I do something interesting and the database gets to store whole new sets of coordinates. If I take several years of this data I can produce maps of the sums of my positions over time:

This is my life as latitude and longitude, expressed in a way that can be easily understood by a human. Where I’ve spent any amount of time the map is redder; journeys appear as snail trails across the country.

Google’s algorithms don’t require any of this “coloured in map” nonsense. After a few weeks, your Android phone can make a reasonable guess at where your work and home are, based on where you spend most of your days and where you spend most of your nights. It doesn’t need to ask — that would be intrusive.

To determine a position on a globe while inconveniently being stuck on that globe you need fixed external references. Fortunately the universe is full of these.

One of simpler means sailors used to work out their relative position from destination was a kamal – a board with a hole in the middle. By putting a string through the hole and holding one end of the string in your teeth, you position the lower edge of the board on the horizon and move it further away until the board obscures your target star (typically Polaris — if visible).

An enthusiastic Wikipedia editor showing how the kamal works. Image: Markus Nielbock/Wikimedia Commons.

The length of the string between your teeth and the board tells you your latitude. By knowing the length of string required for certain ports, you could adjust course to navigate to a place. Using nothing more than your teeth, a string, a plank of wood, a star – and the horizon.

In Polynesia (lacking in a helpful pole star) titiro ‘ētū – “star peekers” – made of nothing but coconuts and seawater were used to navigate to specific islands. To use these, you cut off the top of the coconut and make a ring of holes around the base. You then make a hole near the top for the target star and fill it with water up to the holes (with coconut oil to maintain surface tension). You look through the device at the star at its highest point; if the water inside the device is flat, you are on the same latitude as your destination. The stars will guide you with the simplest of tools, if you know how to use them.


Progression east-west (longitude) can be understood if you know the difference between high-noon on a clock set at a fixed location (Greenwich) and a clock set at the current location. Each hour difference represents 15° of travel longitudinally (1/24 of 360°). Simple enough, if you have a clock that can keep time on the ocean – but that was a complicated problem to solve. Before that, all sailors could really do is line up on the right latitude and go for it.

To make use of more markers than the sun and North Star, you could use nautical almanacs and sextants. These almanacs were essentially large lists of what celestial objects should appear at certain points of the sky, and at what time they can be expected to do so. By using the sextant to compare predicted appearances to actual locations, you can determine the distance to fixed positions.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has mostly replaced the need for these tables. Reliable but not available on-demand stars have been replaced by artificial celestial bodies that spend their whole lives yelling about where they are and what time they think it is. By comparing signals from several different satellites to the time your GPS device thinks it is, you can triangulate your position on the earth within a few meters.

Few mobile phones contain true GPS: mostly they use aGPS or WPS. aGPS uses the resources of the mobile network to speed up reconciliation based on fragmented signals, but WPS (Wireless Positioning System) is something different altogether. It takes advantage of the fact that we littered our world (especially urban areas, where GPS struggles) with millions of radio location beacons, in the form of Wi-Fi access points.

While the vans with the weird cameras were taking pictures of every road in the world, they were also mapping the radio landscape we have made: each house with a Wi-Fi access point, broadcasting a unique identifier. By mapping these to a true GPS reading, location services can provide a guide to any device with a wifi chip. If you read Device #1053443 with 50 per cent strength and Device #10232321 with 74 per cent strength and Device #24324239 with 60 per cent strength, the chances are you are “here” — the most likely place where those signals converge at that strength.

These vans are no longer necessary: while walking around your phone will pick up on any new or unknown access points. With sufficient logs of these devices, their location can be deduced by comparison to known devices and used for future navigation. As well as recording our every step, our phones are automated radio cartographers. This is still ultimately working on similar principles to the nautical almanac and sextant, it just has a much larger look-up table and uses thousands of man-made stars to light the way.

As navigation has become much easier there is also the risk of becoming too dependent on what might turn out to be fragile technology. The US Navy is currently re-introducing celestial navigation training. so that its sailors can figure out where they are in the event of an attack on the GPS system. After the apocalypse, we might find ourselves getting around by holding a bricked phone up to the horizon and measuring the length of the headphone cord to our teeth. 

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.