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. 

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.