Popular Mechanics (South Africa)
The original handheld GPS brought us everything from safer flights to faster door dash deliveries
THANKS TO GPS-ENABLED PHONES and watches, we take for granted that we can easily navigate into (and out of) any place or situation. But it wasn’t until a foggy day in 1985 when an investor and electrical engineer named Ed Tuck piloted a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron across Northern California that the widespread potential of an emerging tech began to become clear: What if someone could harness the power of military global positioning satellites (GPS) to enable everyone to navigate the skies, waterways, and roads without aerial maps or radar signals, Tuck wondered.
Same now as when they were first launched in 1978, the GPS satellites flying 40 000 km above the Earth send a signal at light speed, and a receiver on the ground reports your relative position. In 1985, the US had launched six satellites, which it used primarily to guide missiles. At that time, a few commercial navigation systems used them, but the receivers were the size of pizza ovens and cost at least $10 000. Tuck wanted something more portable – lighter, that ran off batteries, and crucially, affordable. His dream product cost only $300 (around R600 at the time).
To fulfil that vision, Tuck and the engineers he recruited to form Magellan GPS would have to create, invent, or reimagine nearly every component to develop what would become the world’s first handheld GPS device. At the time,
there weren’t even any long-lasting lithium batteries to power these devices. Even the large commercial GPS units had to be wired to an AC power source. And there were no efficient LCD screens, either. So the device Tuck envisioned would need powerful processing chips that were also power efficient.
The vital parts were too expensive to make the final product affordable, so Magellan developed their own, starting with the antenna. They found a company that could build one for $75, hundreds less than what was available at the time. Next, they began working with a high-performance chip maker using a new technology called monolithic microwave integrated circuit (MMIC). The chips could run for hours without overheating and in a wide-enough radio spectrum to capture satellite signals. With those parts, Tuck and his team now had their blueprint for a handheld receiver. By 1989, three years after the company’s founding, Magellan launched its first device: the NAV 1000.
By the standards of today, it was giant – about the size of a large walkie-talkie. But back then, it was magical. The 700 g device was accurate to within 100 m – enough to be useful. The first units were marketed to boaters, who usually worked from simple maps. Incredibly, Tuck and the engineers had been so successful at reducing power draw that the whole thing ran off six AA batteries, which kept it going up to ‘a few hours’.
At $3 000, the device cost 10 times as much as Tuck had hoped. Still, Magellan managed to sell about 500 units the first year. That relative success led to a boom in handheld GPS, creating an entire industry around the technology. Garmin launched shortly after. And by 1995, the United States had a fleet of 24 satellites sending signals down to countless handheld devices. With each new satellite, GPS devices became more reliable and accurate. When Garmin released its eTrex receiver in 2000, it was accurate to 15 to 20 m. Now, just over 30 years since the NAV 1000 went on sale, devices can pinpoint your position to within centimetres.
You might call it wish fulfilment for Tuck, who died in 2017. His vision was for a device that allowed anyone to find their location on the planet quickly and easily. The tech his company pioneered accomplished that, and so much more.