WALTER ISAACSON: It’s mid February, 1989, and we’re at the Miami International Boat Show, one of the places in the world for companies hoping to launch their boat-related products to the world. There are tons of new innovations on the floor, many of them improvements on older thinking, things made shinier and slicker for the new year. But there is one product that stands out from all the others, one that carries with it a fairly audacious promise. The company is called Magellan, and their product is called the NAV 1000.
The tantalizing promise of the NAV 1000? Truly portable geolocation, being able to tell the user their precise location anywhere on the planet by using a satellite-based navigation technique called the global positioning system, or GPS. It’s something that the makers of the NAV 1000 believe can change the entire boating industry. That is if it actually works. The problem is that up until now, demonstrations on American soil have been underwhelming, to say the least.
Magellan had already been to the Chicago boat show six months earlier for the NAV 1000’s debut. But despite having their booths swamped with boaters ready to place orders, the demo that they had on the floor wasn’t working. And journalists and customers were left doubting that the NAV 1000 could actually do what Magellan claimed it could. Part of the problem was the satellites that any GPS unit needed in order to operate.
In 1989, there weren’t very many of them, and the window of time when they were all lined up and available was very, very small. For the Miami International Boat Show, that window was between 1:30 and 3:30 AM, not exactly ideal times for a company hoping to wow the crowds at a daytime trade show. So Magellan’s strategy? A middle of the night demo. They invite editors from all of the top boating magazines to the Miami Howard Johnson’s Hotel. And much to their shock, two of the editors actually show up.
And after a few pints in the hotel bar, they head out to the causeway and fire up the unit. And then they wait. Roughly two minutes after turning it on, the small screen springs to life. And then something amazing happens. Displayed on the gray and black screen with the same resolution as a pocket calculator is the exact latitude and longitude of where they’re standing. The NAV 1000 that they are holding in their hands actually works. The boating magazine editors are impressed, and the consumer GPS industry is officially born.
I’m Walter Isaacson, and this is “Trailblazers,” an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
MAN: You are on the fastest route.
MAN: Modern maps guide us over the modern road to the land.
MAN: With a good map, highway navigation can be very simple.
MAN: I’m positive that old coot told us this was a shortcut to the main highway.
MAN: Map making has changed.
MAN: Today, they are charting new courses.
WALTER ISAACSON: Perhaps no technology has shifted the way we view ourselves on the planet then GPS has. A network of satellites originally designed for military use has become a tool that many of us now depend on to help us get from A to B. From Google Maps to Facebook checkins to targeted drone strikes, the technology behind the global positioning system has not only given us the ability to pinpoint a specific dot on the map, but has also helped us rethink everything we think we know about space and location. It’s a technology that has become so widely adopted, that many of us simply couldn’t imagine living without it.
Of course, mapping our surroundings is nothing new. The earliest known maps were not actually even maps of the earth. They were of the stars, dating back to 16,500 BC, lining the cave walls in Lascaux, France. The map is made up of dots that illustrate parts of the night sky that hunters may have used to help find their way home, an early attempt to try and make order out of the world around us.
Mapping, in its simplest form, continued, leaving archaeologists to uncover scores of cave paintings, tablets, and parchments, each illustrating sometimes crude representations of the mapmakers surroundings. But overall, these early maps were relatively simple ones, that is until Leonardo da Vinci, who was then working for the great warrior Cesare Borgia , tried his hand at cartography by drawing a map of Imola, a town in northern Italy. The result? Quite possibly Leonardo’s greatest contribution to the art and science of war.
Drawn in ink with colored washes of black chalk, his map of Imola was an innovative step in the history of map making. The moat around the fortified town is a tented subtle blue. The walls are silvery, and the roofs are a brickish red. The aerial view is from almost directly overhead, unlike most maps at the time. Acting as both an artist and an engineer, Leonardo had devised a new military weapon, accurate, detail, and easily read maps, something that’s carried over to today, with modern day maps bearing a striking resemblance to Leonardo’s maps of Imola.
Up until the mid-20th century, maps largely existed on paper. And they were rolled or folded and carried with us as a helpful aid, guiding us around the world.
MAN: This first satellite was today successfully launched in the USSR.
WALTER ISAACSON: It wasn’t until 1957, and the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 the world’s first satellite that the concept of mapping would be disrupted in ways never before imagined. After the launch of Sputnik, two American physicists at Johns Hopkins University decided to monitor the radio transmissions that the satellite was broadcasting.
Using receivers, they were able to listen to the electronic beeping. And they found that, based on these transmissions, they were able to pinpoint exactly where Sputnik was in the sky. Their next challenge, to see if this same process could be used in reverse. Instead of people on Earth being able to tell the exact location of a satellite in space, could a satellite in space tell someone their exact location on Earth?
While the idea of a satellite-based mapping system may have been an interesting one, it didn’t work all that well. And it would not be until 1972 when the technology’s next major leap would take place. It was a journey that began with a meeting between the Defense Department’s third in command and Dr. Bradford Parkinson, then a 37-year-old Air Force Colonel.
DR. BRADFORD PARKINSON: They had a proposal of what they were going to do. But I wasn’t necessarily excited to do it. Because I knew that the program had totally failed. So when he asked me to do this, it became clear to me that, if he was intent on moving me, I had to put a stake in the ground right now.
And so I looked him in the eye. It was just me and a three-star general. I was a brand new Air Force Colonel at the time. And I looked in the eye and said, sir, if I go there, am I going to be guaranteed to be the program director? And he said, no, I can’t guarantee that. And then I looked him in the eye. And I said, then I do not volunteer.
And he was very shocked. Because obviously, he was trying to encourage me. And the military being what it, is I think I got about 10 feet outside of his office. He called up military personnel and said, transfer him immediately. And had kind of expected that as a for ordained consequence. And so I went ahead and pressed on.
WALTER ISAACSON: By September of 1973, a group of a dozen engineers led by Parkinson had come up with a seven-page paper describing what would eventually become GPS. The system that Parkinson and his team were developing had the potential to change the way wars were fought, something that Parkinson knew only too well.
DR. BRADFORD PARKINSON: I flew quite a bit of combat over Laos in the Vietnam War. And I was part of an AC 130 gunship team that was remarkable for precision weapon delivery. And by that I mean, we would shoot our very large gun and generally hit within 10 or 15 feet of what we were shooting at.
And as a result, there was no collateral damage. It was a very efficient way to destroy military targets and not take out something else. And I felt confident that the use of GPS would enable precision weapon delivery.
WALTER ISAACSON: The project was called Navstar And on February 22nd, 1978, five long years after the project began the first Navstar satellite was launched into space. And within eight years, five more satellites would be sent up to join it. The American GPS system was born. It was a job that, at that time, seemed nothing short of impossible. And according to Parkinson, it was built by a team that refused to quit.
DR. BRADFORD PARKINSON: If you read books about the battles in Iwo Jima or Okinawa, you recognize that they weren’t doing it for flag and country so much as doing it for their buddies. And they would not let their teams down. And if I could characterize our team, same same. It kind of gets me emotional thinking about it to tell you the truth.
WALTER ISAACSON: GPS, at that point, was in the hands of the military. And it would remain that way for most of the next decade. But that didn’t mean that there weren’t other attempts to use technology to improve navigation, with one of the strangest the now mostly-forgotten Etak Navigator, a product led by an engineer and sailor named Stan Honey, and bankrolled by Nolan Bushnell, the video game pioneer who was the founder of Atari. Stan Honey.
STAN HONEY: In 1983, I was working at Stanford Research Institute as an electrical engineer. And I was also doing part-time navigation on the side professionally. And I was asked to navigate Nolan Bushnell’s brand new yacht, Charlie, that was built to try to win the Transpac race. We became good friends quite quickly. Because Nolan was very insightful about technology, and very interested in technology, and interested in where there would possibly be consumer applications.
WALTER ISAACSON: And it was on this Transpacfiic yacht race, a prestigious one, that spanned from Los Angeles to Honolulu that a new idea was born. For this particular race, the yacht had and edge. Nolan Bushnell had commissioned Stan Honey to construct one of the world’s first computer-based marine navigation systems. And the men had used it to steer themselves towards the finish line. And it was while observing this new navigation system that the idea for a road-based navigation system was born.
STAN HONEY: Everybody was then talking about waiting for GPS to be fielded in order to do an in-vehicle navigation system. But I told Nolan that you actually didn’t have to wait, that if you measured the movements of a car, you could take advantage of the fact that drivers tend to use roads when they’re driving their cars. And then you could cross correlate the pattern that they drove on the roads with the available patterns on the map database.
WALTER ISAACSON: The idea was to create a navigation system that worked through a series of sensors that could track the vehicle’s movements, movements that would then be matched to a location on a map, and then displayed on a screen attached to the dashboard of the car. With Bushnell’s funding and Honey’s team in place, a company called Etak was born. And the development on their flagship product, the Etak Navigator began.
The development of the Etak Navigator was certainly not without its challenges. One of the biggest were the cassettes that were used to store the maps. A map of the Bay Area was spread out over six tapes that the driver would have to change as they made their way through the city. And the most convenient place to store these extra cassettes, on the dashboard of the car, where they would inevitably melt under the heat of the California sun.
The solution to this toasty problem was to totally redesign the cassettes to make them durable enough to survive the scorching conditions. They eventually settled on a polycarbonate shell for the outside of the cassettes, one that was capable of withstanding conditions up to 220 degrees Fahrenheit. Once all the engineering problems were solved, it was time for a launch. But even with a working product to show to potential customers and investors, it was an idea so far ahead of its time that people still had trouble believing it was possible.
STAN HONEY: I mean, we even had potential investors for the company who would have read all of the materials that we would have given them about the company. And then you get them in a car for a test drive, and as soon as you pull out, and then the map starts to rotate as you back out of the parking spot, they look at the thing. And they said, it turned. And they would read about it. But nobody had any concept at the time that this thing under your dashboard of your car could know where you were.
And nowadays, nobody finds that strange. Because nowadays, everything knows where you are, your watch, your phone, your camera, your car. But in those days, the concept that some device could know where it was absolutely foreign. And so part of the problem we had selling it in those days was people were incredulous.
WALTER ISAACSON: It was the first in-car navigation system. It retailed at about $1,500, with the cassettes costing $35 a piece. Honey estimates that they sold 3,000 to 4,000 of them, not gangbusters by anyone’s standards. But the real market, it turned out, was not the consumer. It was the commercial one.
STAN HONEY: It was difficult to sell them. Because nobody really knew what it was. We were disappointed. But we rapidly stumbled onto other opportunities at the time, such as providing dispatch systems for public safety fleets, as well as providing the map database for routing and scheduling.
There was one customer early on I remember well was Coca-Cola. With the Etak database, we could very quickly geocode all of the places where the Coca-Cola trucks needed to deliver the product. And then we were able to show Coca-Cola that, for the last July 3rd, they could have done all of their deliveries with 20% fewer trucks. And that made the sale very easy.
WALTER ISAACSON: But while homegrown systems like Etak were launched to limited consumer success, it was the promise of GPS that would ultimately lead to a revolution in how consumers found their way across the globe. But in the early 1980s, GPS was still locked up as a tool exclusively for the military– that is, until a major international political incident changed everything.
On September 1st, 1983, a Boeing 747 full of passengers was on route from New York to Seoul, South Korea. In this pre-GPS era, every commercial flight relied on a navigator who would sit in the cockpit along with the pilot and copilot. And it was their job to plot a route based on a whole assortment of navigational aids that he or she had on hand.
The Korean Airlines flight had already made its one scheduled stop in Anchorage, Alaska and it was now carrying on to its final destination. Then, a tiny error with disastrous consequences, the jetliner deviated slightly from its planned route, flying inadvertently through Soviet-prohibited airspace. The Soviet Defense Force took this as a sign of aggression, firing several warning shots toward the plane.
The next shot, a K-8 missile fired from a Soviet plane that had been tailing the Korean Airlines flight, was a direct hit. It brought down the plane and killed all of the 269 passengers and crew on board. President Reagan’s reaction was a swift one.
RONALD REAGAN: Let me state as plainly as I can, there was absolutely no justification, either legal or moral, for what the Soviets did. If every passenger plane is fair game for home air forces, it will be the end to civil aviation as we know it.
WALTER ISAACSON: Two weeks after the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007, President Reagan issued a directive. For the first time ever, GPS technology was to be declassified and made freely available for civilian use. With this, he encouraged the commercial development of the system with the goal of making it robust enough so that it could be used to help commercial flights stay on their chosen path. This type of tragedy was never supposed to happen again.
But commercial airlines weren’t the only ones who saw the potential in the release of this new technology. In California, the news caught the attention of Ed Tuck, a venture capitalist and avid aviator. He saw the commercial benefit in putting this technology in the hands of consumers. His dream, to build a GPS unit that could literally be carried in your hand.
Nothing like this had ever been successfully attempted before. Tuck named his new venture Magellan after Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who, in 1519, organized the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe.
ASTRONAUT: Velocity 2,900 feet per second, altitude—
WALTER ISAACSON: But there was a hitch in Tuck’s plans. While President Reagan had pushed for more satellites to be launched into space, the delivery method to get these satellites into space was as cargo on the flights carried out by NASA’s space shuttles. The plan was working well that until January 28th, 1986. It was the launch of the 10th flight of the space shuttle, Challenger.
REPORTER: We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.
WALTER ISAACSON: 73 seconds into its flight, the shuttle broke apart, disintegrating over the Atlantic Ocean. Seven crew members died. And the shuttle program was grounded indefinitely.
With no way to get any more satellites into space, the idea of a commercial GPS program looked less and less likely. This scared away most of the company’s trying to get consumer GPS startups off the ground– but not Ed Tuck. In early 1987, Tuck hired Randy Hoffman as Magellan’s CEO. Hoffman’s main job was to turn the dream of a truly portable GPS unit into a reality.
RANDY HOFFMAN: When we did our market research, people didn’t really see, quite frankly, the need for a handheld product. For most of the people that were using any form of navigation, it was all a built-in panel mount kind of thing, either in an airplane or a boat. The portability of a navigation device really did not compute to the marketplace. But we felt we knew differently, and that a portable device would become something that everybody should have or would use.
WALTER ISAACSON: Despite the research telling them otherwise, they were convinced that they could find a way to make it work.
RANDY HOFFMAN: We first decided to sell it to the marine market, to people that own boats. Because why? There were only six satellites up at the time. The system itself was only operational about six hours a day. So you couldn’t even use it for most of the day. And who do we sell a device that costs, at that point in time, $3,500 to was a person that owned the boat. Because a boat is a hole in the water in which you pour money.
WALTER ISAACSON: For Hoffman, the limitations in GPS technology didn’t faze him. He was convinced that if they could condense all the technology so that it could fit into your hand, there would be a market for it. The next challenge was coming up with a name. The name they chose, the NAV 1000.
RANDY HOFFMAN: The NAV 1000 was about the size of a standard brick. And to the left of the brick was an antenna. And that rotated up when you were using it to receive the satellite signal.
WALTER ISAACSON: And the biggest problem with the technology was the limited number of GPS satellites in space, which meant that the signal could only be received for a few hours every day, something that certainly put a strain on the sleep schedules of the whole Magellan team.
RANDY HOFFMAN: When we were testing the product to get it ready for market, it always seemed to be that the satellites were only available in the middle of the night. And so we took turns testing the product, staying up at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning outside testing the product. In fact, my favorite thing to do was to go to the drive-in movies and put the laptop computers on top of the car, plug in the GPS receivers, and let it collect data while I was watching a double-feature with my wife.
WALTER ISAACSON: And finally, on May 25th, 1989, after years of toiling and a particularly successful demo at the Miami International Boat Show, the NAV 1000 was ready to ship. [MUSIC PLAYING]
RANDY HOFFMAN: We had the UPS man show up. And each employee at Magellan had a package. And we handed it from one employee down to the next and finally to the UPS man. And he put it in the truck.
And we must have had, oh, 15, 20 orders. Basically, we had more orders than we than we had product to sell, of course. And it was a memorable day. And we took pictures, and had cake, and celebrated. Because it had been three or four years of continuous work. And finally, we were shipping the product.
The UPS man was a little taken aback. Because he wasn’t expecting the whole company to greet him with packages. And I’m sure he was in a hurry. But for us, he did find time to participate in the pictures. And I think he even had a piece of cake.
WALTER ISAACSON: The dream of hitting the high-end consumer boat market was finally a reality. More and more units began shipping. And then, on August 2nd, 1990, everything changed. The Iraqi Army, under the control of Saddam Hussein, invaded the tiny country of Kuwait. And six months later, the US, under the leadership of President George H.W. Bush, declared war.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: The liberation of Kuwait has begun.
RANDY HOFFMAN: We were focused only on the consumer market. However, with the war in the Middle East, we basically stopped all of our consumer production and started building a product with military software in it for positioning. We started selling a product to the coalition forces.
And it really increased the size of our business I mean our company dramatically. I mean, we tripled our sales in 12 months. It was something that we really didn’t even look at it from a company growth standpoint. We looked at is, we’re supporting America. We’re supporting the effort in the Middle East and the coalition forces. At the end of the day, one of the generals, he came out and said, Magellan won the war.
WALTER ISAACSON: Magellan’s contribution to the war in the Middle East may have been a proud moment for Randy Hoffman. But his proudest moment would have to wait until several decades later.
RANDY HOFFMAN: We were in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. I was with two of my kids. And there was this room called Time and Navigation. And there at the entrance was our name on a plaque. And it really hit me right in the gut.
I was just I was overwhelmed by the fact that something that I had participated in, that so many people had spent a lot of their time, effort, and energy in doing for– we were the very first handheld GPS receiver– was there on exhibit in the Smithsonian. It was something that I finally realized just kind of the impact that Magellan had had on navigation, and on the world, and how people move around. And as I looked at that product in the Smithsonian, I felt that I had done a small part, along with everybody else at Magellan, that we had helped change the world. And that, I’m very proud of.
WALTER ISAACSON: With all the publicity generated through Magellan’s involvement in the Gulf War, interest in handheld GPS units skyrocketed. And a variety of devices hit the market. In the US, among the big players were companies like Garmin, named after its founders, Gary Burrell and Min Kao. And in the Netherlands, there was TomTom, another technology company that was making a pivot into the GPS space. Corinne Vigreux is the managing director of the consumer division of Tom-Tom and one of its four co-founders.
CORRINE VIGREUX: Moving from A to B is a necessity. And in the olden days, you would use map. Or you would use the A to Z– I was living in London at the time– very cumbersome, very complex. And so there was a real need for navigation. But nobody had really cracked that nut.
WALTER ISAACSON: Up until the year 2000, the US government had been scrambling the GPS signals that were available for civilian use. Nonmilitary applications could still use GPS, but it would only be accurate within 100 yards. It wasn’t until his final term of office that Bill Clinton opened up GPS to the world. Now anyone could enjoy the accuracy that the military had enjoyed for decades, making the timing perfect for Tom-Tom’s GPS market debut.
CORRINE VIGREUX: In 2004, we turn over 40 million. Five years later, we are a 1.8 billion company. So all of a sudden, by we release that product. And the market just took off. There was such a big need for that product.
At the time, the gross, we were selling a million product in a year, and then a million product in a week, in a month, and then in a day. I mean, those were the days where, basically, digital navigation satnav became just an overnight success, if you want, and mainly because it answered a real consumer need. We managed to get a product to market that was very reliable, very easy to use, very accessible. And people could just see the huge benefit of using that type of product.
WALTER ISAACSON: The standalone GPS market was hot– that is, until Google came along and released an app that would change everything. In 2008, the tech giant released a mobile version of their Google Maps software available free of charge and capable of being downloaded to any smartphone. Shock waves were felt throughout the entire GPS industry.
CORRINE VIGREUX: We have grown to a tremendous pace. And so you have a young organization in a way, where we’ve been recruiting a lot of people. We’re trying to establish a culture. We have a worldwide presence. And we’re being disrupted at the same time.
I can tell you, it was not easy. I think what kept us together is a strong leadership team. So we kind of held our own. And we also had this vision of where we wanted to go. And I think that kept us going.
WALTER ISAACSON: Tom-Tom’s vision, to become a mapping company, rather than a mapping device company. Today, Tom-Tom is one of the biggest map makers in the world, having struck deals with several major automotive companies who rely on Tom-Tom’s maps to fuel their own GPS systems. It’s been a strategy that has not only kept them afloat, but enabled them to continue thriving in the face of what otherwise would have been an industry-ending disruption.
Mobile GPS-enabled smartphones have become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. It was a market in which Google was clearly the market leader. Then a young Israeli startup called Waze came along and threatened to disrupt Google. Di-Ann Eisnor is Waze’s director of growth.
DI-ANN EISNOR: It was, I want to say, 2006, 2007 when Ehud Shabtai, the founder, was given a Palm Pilot by his girlfriend for his birthday. And he was so excited. Because it was one of those first ones where you could have access to the internet. It was, I think, just shy of the iPhone release. that he would have GPS. So he started using this to navigate. And what he realized is that the maps were completely out-of-date. And so he said, OK, well, I’m an engineer. I can solve this problem.
So what he did was he realized, OK, we need a base map ourselves. So people started literally driving around and then online adding roads. And before you know it, we have the whole country of Israel mapped out– granted, it’s a small country. But it was done just through crowdsourcing.
WALTER ISAACSON: And it’s that crowdsourcing that is Waze’s secret in the world of mapping. They quickly developed a user base that saw the value in exactly the sort of experience Waze was offering.
DI-ANN EISNOR: In a nutshell, Waze is a real-time traffic and navigation application that’s all crowdsourced. And so, because of that, we’ve got tens of millions of users around the world that are helping each other avoid traffic accidents, kind of your community of drivers out on the road to make sure you get where you need to go as fast as possible everyday.
WALTER ISAACSON: Waze was attracting a particularly loyal user base, many of whom felt a sense of ownership over the experience. The genius of the app was that, even if users didn’t contribute to the mapping itself, just by virtue of running Waze on your phone, the app could track how fast or how slow you were moving through traffic. It could then provide alternate routes to other users based on where cars were slowing down.
The platform got smarter the larger the community grew. And it did grow. To use their tag line, the community of users were outsmarting traffic together. And Google took notice.
In June 2013, Waze had reached a user base of 50 million people. In that same month, Google purchased the startup for what was rumored to be close to $1 billion. But why exactly did Google, the market leader in mobile GPS, acquire a distant competitor like Waze to the tune of almost a billion dollars?
The technology they created was probably part of the puzzle. The loyal user base would have definitely been another piece. But perhaps, the most interesting part was the ability to integrate Waze’s user experience with Google’s robust advertising network with the ability to not only personalize the advert experience based on demographics, but also to have advertising personalized based on location, something that, over time, has become the most powerful weapon in Google’s already powerful advertising arsenal.
DI-ANN EISNOR: Advertising side, we call it location-guided advertising. And we try to make sure that any way we weave in these sponsors, it’s additive to the user experience– or that’s what we say. We say, additive to the user experience. And that basically means, if we can save you time going from A to B, then if we can do that through advertising, fine.
So for example, you might have seen the test we did with Dunkin’ Donuts where you can actually order ahead right from our app. So then we’ll navigate you to Dunkin’ Donuts. And, boom, your meal is ready there for you to pick up. So it saves you even more time.
WALTER ISAACSON: For a generation that grew up with GPS, it’s impossible to imagine a time without it. GPS tracking has had an impact on almost everything that we do, from getting us to where we need to go, to tracking the products we use and the food we eat. It helps us survey our land, and of course, map our world.
There is a saying that technology has helped make the world a smaller place. And in some cases, this may be metaphorically true. But not so in the case of cheap GPS. It hasn’t made the world smaller at all.
Instead, what it’s done is made it more precise and more location-based. It’s an example of a disruptive technology that hasn’t just changed one aspect of our lives. It’s become a fundamental part of who we are and where we are at any given point on planet Earth.
I’m Walter Isaacson. And this is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. If you enjoyed the show and want even more insights on how Leonardo da Vinci created the field of modern mapping, visit delltechnology.com/trailblazers10– that’s trailblazers, then the number 10.
Next episode, we’ll be looking at the health industry and how technology is enabling the field of precision medicine and helping us all battle diseases with individualized treatments instead of the one-size-fits-all solution. You can subscribe to Trailblazers in Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like it, please leave us a rating and a review. It helps new listeners discover the show. Thanks for listening.
COMPUTER: You have reached your destination on right.