In the Beginning

An Introduction to the GPS Revolution

First article in a seven-part series

In 1492 Christopher Columbus turned his three small boats out of the yacht club and headed for India. On board, he carried no maps and no reliable means of measuring time, distance, or speed. He left behind many people who sincerely believed the world was flat and that Chris and his merry band of adventurers would probably sail right off the edge.

Let's face it. In 1492 Chris was winging it and his crew wasn't very happy with that fact, either.

But Chris survived and brought back rudimentary maps and sailing directions to what he called the West Indies, which meant that sailors who followed wouldn't be leaving their yacht clubs quite so informationally challenged.

Today, we're in the midst of another mapmaking explosion thanks, in no small part, to the computer and super software called Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. Printed paper maps are giving way to digital maps compressed onto disks or memory chips. There's hardly an outdoors activity or location that doesn't have a map available for those who would head for the hills.

Though the technology is booming, a little knowledge is required for outdoors enthusiasts to be able to use maps, compasses, and, especially, the Global Positioning System effectively.

Knowing where you are depends on being able to measure your location accurately, and the world standard for doing that is the system of latitude and longitude. Here's how it works and how to use it.

Assume the world is round. It isn't but you'll hurt your head a lot less if you make believe it is. A round ball of a planet has no start and finish points. It's round. But, for finding your way from here to there with reasonable assurance that "there" will be there when you get there, you need to know the locations of your starting point and destination.

Realizing this, the geographers of the day, quite arbitrarily, drew two circles around a globe. The first started at the North Pole, went through Greenwich, England, through the South Pole, and finished back at the North Pole again, effectively dividing the world into eastern and western hemispheres. They called this line the prime meridian. The second line girdled the globe around the middle delineating north from south. This they called the equator.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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