How Etak Paved The Way To Personal Navigation

Our recent “Retrotechtacular” feature on an early 1970s dead-reckoning car navigation system stirred a memory of another pre-GPS solution for the question that had vexed the motoring public on road trips into unfamiliar areas for decades: “Where the heck are we?” In an age when the tattered remains of long-outdated paper roadmaps were often the best navigational aid a driver had, the dream of an in-dash scrolling map seemed like something Q would build for James Bond to destroy.

And yet, in the mid-1980s, just such a device was designed and made available to the public. Dubbed Etak, the system was simultaneously far ahead of its time and doomed to failure by the constellation of global positioning satellites being assembled overhead as it was being rolled out. Given the constraints it was operating under, Etak worked very well, and even managed to introduce some of the features of modern GPS that we take for granted, such as searching for services and businesses. Here’s a little bit about how the system came to be and how it worked.

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Retrotechtacular: Car Navigation Like It’s 1971

Anyone old enough to have driven before the GPS era probably wonders, as we do, how anyone ever found anything. Navigation back then meant outdated paper maps, long detours because of missed turns, and the far too frequent stops at dingy gas stations for the humiliation of asking for directions. It took forever sometimes, and though we got where we were going, it always seemed like there had to be a better way.

Indeed there was, but instead of waiting for the future and a constellation of satellites to guide the way, some clever folks in the early 1970s had a go at dead reckoning systems for car navigation. The video below shows one, called Cassette Navigation, in action. It consisted of a controller mounted under the dash and a modified cassette player. Special tapes, with spoken turn-by-turn instructions recorded for a specific route, were used. Each step was separated from the next by a tone, the length of which encoded the distance the car would cover before the next step needed to be played. The controller was hooked to the speedometer cable, and when the distance traveled corresponded to the tone length, the next instruction was played. There’s a long list of problems with this method, not least of which is no choice in road tunes while using it, but given the limitations at the time, it was pretty ingenious.

Dead reckoning is better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from GPS navigation. If you’re still baffled by how that cloud of satellites points you to the nearest Waffle House at 3:00 AM, check out our GPS primer for the details.

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Retrotechtacular: The Omega Navigational System

In 1971, the United States Navy launched the Omega navigational system for submarines and surface ships. The system used radio frequencies and phase difference calculations to determine global position. A network of eight (VLF) transmitter sites spread around the globe made up the system, which required the cooperation of six other nations.

Omega’s fix accuracy was somewhere between one and two nautical miles. Her eight transmitter stations were positioned around the Earth such that any single point on the planet could receive a usable signal from at least five stations. All of the transmitters were synchronized to a Cesium clock and emitted signals on a time-shared schedule.

LOP-thumbA ship’s receiving equipment performed navigation by comparing the phase difference between detected signals. This calculation was based around “lanes” that served to divvy up the distance between stations into equal divisions. A grid of these lanes formed by eight stations’ worth of overlapping signals provides intersecting lines of position (LOP) that give the sailor his fix.

In order for the lane numbers to have meaning, the sailor has to dial in his starting lane number in port based on the maps. He would then select the pair of stations nearest him, which were designated with the letters A to H. He would consult the skywave correction tables and make small adjustments for atmospheric conditions and other variances. Finally, he would set his lane number manually and set sail.

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