Roger Easton, one of the lead inventors of the Global Positioning System, the satellite-based navigation technology used by everything from mobile phones to guided missiles, has died. He was 93.
He died May 8 at his home in Hanover, New Hampshire, according to a statement by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, where he worked for 37 years.
Easton helped create some of the most significant space systems, including Project Vanguard, which in 1958 launched the first solar-powered satellite, and the U.S. Naval Space Surveillance System, which tracked thousands of man-made objects orbiting Earth through a nationwide network of detectors.
His contributions to the Global Positioning System, or GPS, grew out of his earlier work and were the source of his greatest fame. The system today involves two dozen orbiting satellites, called Navstar, that send out precisely timed signals. The transmissions are detected by mobile phones, aircraft, cars and ships at sea to enable accurate navigation.
Originally deployed for the military, GPS has come to encompass entire industries involving navigation, surveying, communication and time-keeping. Services related to the technology generate annual revenue of $150 billion to $270 billion globally, according to a 2013 study by Oxford, U.K.- based Oxera Consulting Ltd.
At the Navy lab starting in 1964, Easton developed the Timation system (named for time-navigation) which featured satellites carrying highly accurate clocks in orbit.
Easton isn’t the only scientist credited for the development of GPS. Ivan Getting, a Raytheon Manufacturing Co. scientist who envisioned a version of GPS in the 1950s, and Bradford Parkinson, an Air Force colonel who developed it in the 1970s, were both inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their contributions to satellite-based navigation.
Easton held 11 U.S. patents including patent 3,789,409 for “navigation systems using satellites and passive ranging techniques” for timation, according to the Navy lab statement.
Roger Lee Easton was born on April 30, 1921, in Craftsbury, Vermont, to Frank Birch Easton, a physician, and Della Donnocker Easton, a homemaker. He graduated from the Craftsbury Academy in 1939 and Middlebury College in Vermont in 1943. Later that year, after one semester at the University of Michigan, he joined the Navy lab.
His initial work was on radar beacons and instrument landing systems. In the 1950s, at Whites Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, he was involved in rocket experiments, according to the Navy lab’s statement. He also helped coordinate tracking of Sputnik after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite in 1957.
In 1980, Easton retired as head of the Space Applications Branch at the lab.
He moved to Canaan, New Hampshire, and served two terms in the state legislature. In 1986, he ran in the Republican gubernatorial primary, focusing on his opposition to the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant, then under construction.
“The only thing worse than losing would be winning,” he told his family, according to the statement.
In 2004, President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Technology. In 2010, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia.
Survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Barbara Coulter; a daughter, Ruth Easton; two sons, Roger Easton Jr. and Richard Easton, and five grandchildren, according to the Navy lab statement.