The late comedian Myron Cohen told the story of a man who hid in the bedroom closet when his paramour’s husband arrived home unexpectedly. When the husband opens the closet door and asks what he’s doing there, he replies “Everybody gotta be someplace.”
This existential truth has engaged mankind from the beginning, as have its practical implications. Hunting and gathering might lead you far and wide, but if you can’t find your way back to the secure confines of your cave, you might lose your place on the food chain. Locational awareness is one of the most fundamental of evolutionary traits. Not only does everybody gotta be someplace, but life is just better if you know where that someplace is.
People have been trying to sort out exactly where they fit into the world for thousands of years. One of the earliest maps, attributed to the Babylonians, was found on a clay tablet (about the size of a smartphone) that dates to around 600 B.C. Although it clearly depicts Babylon, the Euphrates River and Assyria, it wasn’t much good for navigation. Scholars believe the real purpose was more primal – to allow the owner to grasp the world at large along with his own place in it. Even back then, “You are here” was a thing.
Credit for the first serious attempt at accurate mapping goes to Claudius Ptolemaeus (better known as Ptolemy), an Egyptian astronomer, mathematician and astrologer who was obsessed with producing precise horoscopes. To accomplish this, he needed to accurately locate a subject’s birthplace on a world map, and so he invented geography. The concept of latitude and longitude, several techniques for flattening the planet (for the round-earthers), and the fact that Capricorns are responsible and disciplined can thus be traced to Ptolemy.
Long before GPS fails entered the culture, maps famously (and often deliberately) led people astray. California was drawn as an island well into the 18th century, and Ptolemy’s juxtaposition of Arabian and Italian miles led Columbus to underestimate the distance of his voyage to Asia and discover America instead. Although the compass dates to the Chinese Han Dynasty over 2000 years ago, the introduction of reliable ones, combined with Ptolemy’s work, eventually improved the utility of maps and enabled water-based commerce. The focus was initially on the seacoasts and major rivers, with terra firma labeled as terra incognita.
Throughout history, maps have been much more than mere tools for navigation. They have served to establish common lands for public use, and they were often collected and displayed by people who wanted to appear knowledgeable. Maps were data made visible; they conferred military advantage while inspiring ambitious dreams of expanding empires and taxable land.
It was the lure of military advantage that drove the next big leap in location technology. The Soviet Spacecraft Sputnik, a polished metal sphere about 2 feet in diameter, was launched in 1957. Although it was a harmless technology demonstration, the idea of looking up into the night sky and seeing a Russian satellite passing by overhead did not sit well with the US Defense Department. While this little metal ball lasted only three months before burning up in the atmosphere, it ushered in a massive wave of military and scientific developments, one of which was the Global Positioning System.
The US Military scrambled to get their GPS up and running, launching a total of 11 satellites between 1978 and 1985. When the Soviets shot down a Korean passenger jet in 1983, then President Ronald Reagan decided to open the GPS for civilian use to help worldwide transport fix position accurately and avoid restricted foreign territory. Today’s GPS has about 30 active satellites in use by automobiles, aircraft, ships and various scientific missions where precise location is important.
These days, most maps are comprised of an array of illuminated pixels on a flat screen display. No longer must we stop, pull out a compass, and orient ourselves. A moving icon indicates instantaneous position with no need for mundane concepts like North or South. Thanks to the proliferation of GPS devices, the very idea of a map has been obsoleted by a soothing robotic voice telling us precisely where to go, and gently prodding wanderers to return to the highlighted route. We are seduced into believing that we are always at the center of our own little flat-screened universe.
Scientists have long insisted that each of us has an internal compass of sorts; a map-like image of our personal world lurking in the depths of our consciousness. If you’ve ever awakened in a hotel room with the black-out curtains closed, recovered from general anesthesia, or consumed too many adult beverages, you are familiar with the fleeting sense of panic that accompanies the disruption of this image. That internal locational awareness has been compromised by our GPS devices, eroding both our orientation skills and our ability to remember details about the world around us. We no longer need to pay attention, and we are losing our sense of how things fit together. Like an airplane in heavy fog, we blindly follow directions from our devices and hope to eventually emerge into clear and familiar skies without crashing.
Maps have changed a lot over the past several millennia. People, not so much. Google Earth is the go-to example of a sophisticated map of the entire planet, nicely formatted for the round-earthers. When people begin using it, what’s the first thing they look up? Their own home. The solution to the “You Are Here” conundrum is now always at hand, provided you have a smartphone (about the size of a Babylonian tablet).
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.
Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.
Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.