SCIENCE

A Pioneer of GPS Passes Away


In February 2019, my husband, James Spilker Jr., and I celebrated the news that he, along with his colleagues Brad Parkinson, Hugo Fruehauf and Richard Schwartz, would receive the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the most prestigious engineering award in the world, for their groundbreaking work on the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS was, and continues to be, a tremendous feat of engineering that required the development of new satellites, atomic clocks and GPS receivers.

When GPS launched in the 1970s, it helped the U.S. military to improve its navigation and, subsequently, it contributed immeasurably to mobile mapping applications. Now, nearly 50 years later, the same steady GPS signals that Jim designed and proposed in the 1970s, are used in everything from monitoring tectonic plates and glaciers to banking to tracking all mobile devices including those for Alzheimer’s patients and parolees.

Unfortunately, Jim passed away before the formal Queen Elizabeth Prize ceremony at Buckingham Palace on December 3, 2019, so I will complete this journey without him. But prior to his death, Jim and I spoke at length about what this honor meant to him. He was hugely grateful for the recognition of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering and hoped this would inspire others to achieve greatness in their fields and be recognized by their peers and the public at large. As he said, “Engineering technology is the necessary catalyst for world-changing benefits to humanity. It’s magic!”

His successes over the years were guided by this spirit, but they were also the result of his incredible intellect and ambitious entrepreneurial spirit, which were on full display when I met him in 1973 on the running track, Angell Field, at the Stanford University campus. He had just started a corporation with no venture capital and basically no money, so the company needed to be profitable from year one. We married at the end of 1975, which meant that together we had to personally guarantee all loans to the company.

This was risky, of course, but Jim was already an expert on signal-timing technology, and while working at Ford Aerospace, he designed and implemented the payload for the world’s first military satellite communications system. He started Stanford Telecommunications because he felt the need and urgency to provide significant engineering solutions to the GPS evolution, and so, he was ready for the challenge when his former colleague Brad Parkinson reached out to inquire if Jim’s company would recommend the GPS signal structure for code division multiple access (CDMA).

The signal that he proposed is still working today and is what makes consumer GPS technology possible. He figured out how to allow multiple satellites to broadcast on the same frequency without interfering with each other. His work also contributed to the incredible accuracy of GPS, and his company built some of the first GPS receivers.

In those early days, we rented a one-bedroom apartment next to a lagoon, took out our canoe while our dinner was cooking, and enjoyed the bird life along the waterfront. Later, we bought a beautiful home in Woodside and commuted to Silicon Valley every day in one car, first to his office, then to mine where I worked in corporate and industrial real estate. After work, we went to Gold’s Gym to pump iron from 7:00 to 8:30 P.M. This would become a serious avocation for Jim, and he acquired numerous national trophies in bodybuilding, most won after age 60. He also competed in the Martin Luther King sanctioned sprinting event where he placed third to the world winner in the over-50 age category.

After dinner, Jim, with characteristic boundless energy, would begin his next shift, authoring technical books that explained his engineering and physics theories to solve complex engineering problems. We did this for 27 years, then he sold his corporation in 1999.

In 2001, Jim was invited to be a consulting professor in electrical engineering at Stanford University. He cofounded the Stanford Center for Position, Navigation and Time (SCPNT) in 2005 and gave his work on the L5 civil signals to the United States. Later, Jim was appointed adjunct professor at Stanford.

Jim was the architect, engineer and general contractor of our estate home, which is situated on 125 acres of oceanfront in Half Moon Bay, Calif. We hope to donate this jewel of the Pacific to an organization that has a global reach in education and national research in climate change, weather disturbances, chemical free farming practices and ocean health.

We had an incredible life together, pursuing a shared mission to serve others and hopefully improve the lives of many, but what many don’t know is that in order to do all this, Jim had to overcome severe eye limitations and humble beginnings. When he was a young student, his peers called him the Little Professor, and many of his teachers thought he could not have written the essays he presented. Jim wore thick glasses and was studious to a fault. He could not compete in athletics because of his small frame most of his growing years, so he competed in intellectual pursuits. Only at community college did his professors recognize his superior intellect, encouraging him to go on to pursue a master’s and a PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford University.

His vision had been problematic from childhood on, but towards the last two and a half years of his life he completely lost his vision. He could not see the keyboard of his supercomputers, nor could he read or recognize faces. This was a trial he could not overcome. He could see in his mind’s eye complex quantum mathematics, virtual tunnels in the sky, newer signal structures capable of indoor GPS, and other complex engineering studies, but he no longer had a way to communicate and teach with his blindness.

I am proud to have been a significant contributor to Jim’s success. Jim’s dying words were of regret that he would not be able to teach others anymore. He was always thinking outside the box to deliver solutions that leaped over current thinking, and he always tried to help others think grand thoughts that transcend the mundane. He enriched my life well beyond the ordinary. For that I am forever grateful.


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