Eagle Scout Bradford Parkinson, the father of the Global Positioning System, has always been known as a trailblazer. When he was a member of Troop 119 in Minneapolis during the early 1950s, he often served as a “hikemaster,” scouting out hiking trails for his fellow Scouts. During one such expedition, a large timber wolf appeared just 50 feet in front of him. “It gave Brad a ‘look’ and took off on the other side of the road,” fellow troop member Alan Robinson recalled. “Brad was still several miles from camp, but he was able to make it back to camp in record time.”
Parkinson faced far bigger challenges in 1973, when, as an Air Force colonel, he was named to lead an interservice program to create a new satellite-based navigation system. Averting interservice turf battles, Parkinson hammered out an agreement between Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps factions that led to the creation of the now-ubiquitous GPS. The first prototype of the system went into operation in 1978; in 1995, it became fully operational. Today, of course, GPS receivers are everywhere, and the Boy Scouts of America even offers a merit badge—Geocaching—that relies on GPS technology.
For his work in developing GPS, Parkinson shared the Draper Prize, one of engineering’s highest honors, in 2003. A year later, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Parkinson’s success with the development of GPS lay in his unique combination of leadership ability and technological savvy. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he holds advanced degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. In between his graduate-school stints, he served twice in Vietnam, earning numerous awards including the Bronze Star, the Legion of Honor, and the Meritorious Service Medal.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1978, Parkinson worked in the private sector and taught at Colorado State University and Stanford. At Stanford, where he held an endowed chair in aeronautics and astronautics, he continued his research on GPS and related technologies. Among other accomplishments, he demonstrated how GPS could be used for aircraft blind landings and automating farm tractors.
An emeritus professor at Stanford, Parkinson continues to pursue the sorts of outdoor activities he enjoyed 60 years ago in Troop 119. These days, however, he carries something he couldn’t have dreamed of back then: a GPS receiver.