Bradford Parkinson

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Bradford Parkinson
Col Bradford Parkinson USAF official photo.png
Born (1935-02-16) February 16, 1935 (age 82)
Madison, Wisconsin
Residence San Luis Obispo, California
Nationality American
Fields Aeronautics
Institutions United States Air Force
Stanford University
Alma mater United States Naval Academy
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Stanford University
Known for Global positioning system
Notable awards Magellanic Premium (1997)
Draper Prize
National Inventors Hall of Fame

Bradford Parkinson (February 16, 1935) is an American engineer and inventor, and United States Air Force colonel best known as the father of the Global Positioning System (along with Roger L. Easton and Ivan A. Getting).

He attended the United States Naval Academy, graduating in 1957, but decided to join the Air Force because of its superior educational opportunities. Parkinson then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his M.S. in Aeronautics, graduating in 1961.

After several years in the Air Force, he entered a Ph. D. program at Stanford University, graduating in 1966. In 1973 he became manager of the NAVSTAR GPS development program, where he remained until 1978 when he retired from the Air Force. In 1984, Parkinson became a professor at Stanford University, where today he is a professor emeritus.

In 2003 he shared the Draper Prize with Ivan A. Getting for his contributions to the invention of the Global Positioning System. In 2004 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2016 he received the Marconi Prize.[1]


Parkinson attended the United States Naval Academy, graduating in 1957 with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. While studying there, Parkinson discovered he had a deep interest in controls engineering, which was not a research focus of the Navy at that time. Fortunately, one of Parkinson's electrical engineering professors was an Air Force officer, and urged him to consider switching military branches. Parkinson also knew he wanted to get a Ph. D. later in life, and the Air Force was more receptive to graduate and post-graduate education at this time. [2]

After two years in Southeast Asia, he did go to MIT, studying controls engineering, inertial guidance, and electrical engineering.[3] Parkinson worked in the lab of Charles Stark Draper, the namesake for the prestigious Draper Prize which Parkinson went on to win later in his life.[2] He received a Master of Science in Aeronautics in 1961.[4]

Parkinson was then assigned to work at Central Inertial Guidance Test Facility at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. There he continued to study inertial guidance and electrical and controls engineering, gaining a deep understanding of both the academic issues at hand and their application to the actual battlefield. After three years at Holloman, Parkinson was assigned to a Ph. D. program at Stanford University by Robert H. Cannon Jr., graduating in 1966.[2]


Air Force duty[edit]

After graduating from the Naval Academy, Parkinson opted to perform regular Air Force duty in order to, as he put it, “find out what the Air Force was all about”.[2] He served two years as a chief Communications-Electronics officer at an early warning station Southeast Asia. Parkinson again returned to combat duty in Vietnam in 1969, after finishing his Ph. D. at Stanford. His assignment was to refine and improve the AC-130 Spectre gunship, and he was sent to the field in order to gain an understanding of how the technology performed in real-life situations. During this period he logged more than 170 hours of combat missions, and was awarded a number of military honors including the Bronze Star, Legion of Honor, Meritorious Service Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. Over the course of his life, Parkinson served twenty-one years in the Air Force, from 1957 to 1978. Parkinson was an academic instructor for test pilots at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, He retired at the rank of colonel.

NAVSTAR Project[edit]

In 1973, thanks in part to the influence of his mentor, General William W. Dunn, Parkinson was assigned to a nascent Air Force program called Project 621B. This program was a navigation-focused collaboration between The Aerospace Corporation and the Air Force, with most of the technology being owned by Aerospace. He quickly became the de facto manager of the operation and later the director.

When Parkinson first took over 621B, the program was in its earliest stages, with most of the work being theoretical. Parkinson's responsibilities shifted to managing the program, and ensuring that the Pentagon and the United States Congress were fully supportive of the initiative. In 1978 the first working prototype of a GPS system was launched. 621B transitioned to the larger NAVSTAR program, and, rather than taking an administrative position at the Pentagon, Parkinson decided to retire from the Air Force.

Private sector[edit]

Parkinson in 2003

After retiring from the Air Force, Parkinson spent one year teaching mechanical engineering at Colorado State University. He then became Vice President of the Space Systems Group at Rockwell International, Inc., where he was involved in developing the space shuttle. Later. Parkinson joined Intermetrics, a software company based in Boston. Parkinson was a vice president at Intermetrics, and was heavily involved in taking the company public in 1982. In 1984, Parkinson accepted a research position at Stanford University. At Stanford he was the "Edward C. Wells" Chair of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He taught a “Managing Innovation” course. In 1999, he served as the acting CEO of Trimble Navigation, a producer of advanced positioning systems.[3] Today, Parkinson sits on the boards of Trimble Navigation, EMS Technologies, and Navigation Technology Ventures.


Historical context[edit]

Beginning with the Sputnik launch in 1957, there was an awareness in the aeronautical and military communities that some type of satellite-based navigation system was technically feasible – and even likely, in some form. The United States Navy experimented with the technology early on, launching a network of navigational satellites named Transit in 1960. TRANSIT was mainly used for tracking ICBMs on submarines, and was limited to two dimensions. In addition, the accuracy was limited to two miles, which, at that time, was considered to be near the theoretical limit of the technology.

Throughout the 1960s work continued on navigational satellites. Several additional projects were launched at a variety of different organizations, including The Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit R&D laboratory in the United States, the Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Naval Surface Weapons Center. However, each organization operated independently, and, given the potential military significance of the technology, a certain amount of secrecy marked the projects. In addition, the early results of high-accuracy testing were disappointing. The Pentagon was publicly skeptical of satellite-based navigation systems, as they believed the accuracy would always be too poor to be of substantial value.

Reception and impact[edit]

GPS has become a ubiquitous and life-changing technology and critical to military operations. Most current cell phones, for example, include receivers, enabling block-by-block directions for pedestrians and drivers alike. Civilian airplanes have also incorporated GPS receivers for navigation. Indeed, with the help of GPS, airplanes are now capable of performing landings on autopilot, and doing so with better precision and safety than human pilots.[5] GPS is being tested for earthquake detection and measurement. The timing systems integral to GPS see use in internet and web technologies.[citation needed]. Parkinson was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004[6]

Personal life[edit]

Bradford Parkinson was born in Madison, Wisconsin on February 16, 1935, but grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the only son of Herbert Parkinson, an architect who was also an alumnus of MIT. For his secondary education, the younger Parkinson attended the Breck School, then a small, all-boys preparatory school, graduating in 1952.[7] Parkinson has credited his experiences at the Breck School for inspiring in him an early love of math and science, an interest which eventually became his life's calling.[2]

In addition to his career, Parkinson has a number of avocations, perhaps the most important of which is the outdoors. Over the course of his life he's been an avid skier, snowshoer, and hiker, all of which he enjoys today with the help of GPS units. Parkinson is also an experienced sailor, recently sailing a catamaran around the Caribbean with one of his sons.[5] Beyond athletics, Parkinson is a student of history, with Abraham Lincoln and Admiral Horatio Nelson being two of his lifelong heroes.[7]

Today, Parkinson lives in San Luis Obispo, California, a small city located halfway between San Jose and Los Angeles. He is married to Virginia “Ginny” Parkinson, with whom he has one child. He also has five children from a previous marriage with Jill Horner-Jencks (remarried), as well as five grandchildren.


Parkinson, U.S. Patent 5,726,659, “Multipath calibration in GPS pseudorange measurements”
Parkinson, U.S. Patent 6,434,462, “GPS control of a tractor-towed implement"
Parkinson, U.S. Patent 6,732,024, “Method and apparatus for vehicle control, navigation and positioning"
Parkinson, U.S. Patent 6,052,647, “Method and system for automatic control of vehicles based on carrier phase differential GPS"
Parkinson, U.S. Patent 6,373,432, "System using leo satellites for centimeter-level navigation"
Parkinson, U.S. Patent 5,572,218, "System and method for generating precise position determinations"
Parkinson, U.S. Patent RE37,256, "System and method for generating precise position determinations"


External links[edit]

Bradford Parkinson | Inside GNSS. [2]
Bradford Parkinson: GPS Pioneer. [3]
Bradford Parkinson SM '61. [4]
Bradford Parkinson Biography. [5]
Dr. Brad Parkinson. [6]
GPS inventor inducted into hall of fame. [7]
Hall of Fame | Induction | 2004 Inductees. [8]
Profile: Brad Parkinson. [9]
Bradford Parkinson | 'Jammers' pose threat to naval navigation - expert [10]