GPS Was Terrible In The '90s ... On Purpose

The military was scrambling it. No, this isn't a conspiracy theory.
GPS Was Terrible In The '90s ... On Purpose

Though you couldn't track someone's location on a smartphone in the '90s, or on a tablet, dedicated GPS devices did exist back then. The only problem was, they weren't all that good. They might get your location wrong by 300 feet in one direction, and then the next day, they might get it wrong by 300 feet in the complete opposite direction.

Was this just the growing pains of a new technology? Nope! We had the tech to do GPS right even back then, but it was throttled, on purpose, by the US military. 

GPS was first developed by the military back in '70s, and it was supposed to be purely a military technology. Then in 1983, a Korean flight accidentally slipped into Russian airspace, and Russia shot it down, mistaking it for a spy plane. President Ronald Reagan then ordered the military to release GPS for civilian use, since that should prevent that mistake from ever happening again.

The US then let anyone in the world use GPS with enough precision to tell them, with certainty, just what country they were flying over. But the military didn't want everyone to be able to use the full capabilities of GPS, just in case someone used it to direct weapons with laser accuracy. So, they set up errors to slip into everyone's satellite signals at random. They called this "selective availability," and only the US military were able to switch selective availability off and use GPS with full accuracy. 

Selective availability caused a lot of problems for planes, so airlines kept asking the military to do away with it. Finally, they did, in May 2000, and everyone's GPSs suddenly got a whole lot better. 

You might be weirded out a little that the US had the power to turn GPS on or off for the whole world. On the other hand, GPS was developed totally by the US, and even today, the US maintains it at a cost of some $2 billion a year while giving access to everyone in the world for free. So when you think about it, maybe America is really being super generous.

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For more on the history of tech, check out:

5 Disturbing Origins Of Everyday Technology

The 8 Most Hilarious Ways GPS Has Screwed People Over

5 Tech Failures That Can Turn Your Life Into A Horror Movie

Top image: NASA

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