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Bradford Parkinson

Born February 16, 1935
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 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.

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. Today Parkinson lives in San Luis Obispo, California near his six children and five grandchildren.


Personal life

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 [1]. 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 [3]. Beyond athletics, Parkinson is a student of history, with Abraham Lincoln and Admiral Horatio Nelson being two of his life-long heroes [1].

In 2003 Parkinson was awarded the Draper Prize for his contributions to GPS, along with the Ivan Getting, the long-time chairman of the Aerospace Corporation. The award is a $500,000 cash prize, and is commonly considered the Nobel Prize of engineering. In addition, in 2004 Parkinson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his contributions.

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, as well as five grandchildren.


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. For these reasons, Parkinson accepted a commission in the Air Force rather than the Navy after graduation [2 ].

Immediately after graduation, Parkinson's superiors offered to send him to study in MIT's “Course Sixteen” a well-known aeronautics and astronautics program. However, having just joined the Air Force, Parkinson decided that he would prefer to spend some time on regular duty to get a feel for the branch. After two years in Southeast Asia, he did matriculate into the MIT program, studying controls engineering, inertial guidance, and electrical engineering [4 ]. Interestingly, 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 ]. After two years of study, Parkinson graduated with a Master of Science in Aeronautics in 1961 [5].

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, graduating in 1966 [2 ].



Air Force duty

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, and then was sent back to the United States in order to continue his education at MIT. 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. He retired at the rank of colonel.


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 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. Though the technology interested Parkinson, at first he was reluctant to join the program as he did not want to give up his directorship of another Air Force project. However, he was assigned anyway, and he quickly made himself the de facto manager of the operation. After several months the Air Force recognized his drive and interest in the project – as well as his background and skill-set – and made him the director.

When Parkinson first took over 621B, the program was in its earliest stages, with most of the work being theoretical. Naturally, Parkinson's sterling technical background proved to be a tremendous asset during this period. However, as the project gained momentum, Parkinson's responsibilities shifted to managing the program, and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring that the Pentagon and the United States Congress were fully supportive of the initiative. His political and managerial skill were invaluable to the success of the program, demonstrating a rare combination of excellence in both the technical and non-technical domains. In 1978 the first working prototype of a GPS system was launched, and Parkinson's years of effort were validated. 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

After retiring from the Air Force, Parkinson spent one year teaching, but then decided to enter the private sector. He first was appointed Vice President of the Space Systems Group at Rockwell International, Inc., where he was involved in developing the space shuttle. Following his work at Rockwell, 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. 1984, Parkinson accepted a research position at Stanford University. However, Parkinson later returned to the private sector in 1999, where he served as the acting CEO of Trimble Navigation, a producer of advanced positioning systems [4 ]. Today, Parkinson sits on the boards of several large navigation-related companies, including Trimble Navigation, EMS Technologies, and Navigation Technology Ventures.

Teaching and professorship

Early in his career, Parkinson was an academic instructor for test pilots at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, but soon moved on to other projects. Immediately after retiring from the Air Force, Parkinson returned to Colorado, taking a position teaching mechanical engineering at Colorado State University. However, after only one year, Parkinson's budding academic career was cut short by his detour into the private sector. After five years outside of academia, however, Parkinson returned to his alma mater Stanford, where he became research professor focused on GPS and related technologies. After several years he was given tenure, and was named to the endowed "Edward C. Wells" Chair of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Beyond his research duties, Parkinson was also an active and well-liked teacher, creating and leading the popular “Managing Innovation” course. Today, Parkinson is a professor emeritus at Stanford.


Historical context

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 not entirely encouraging. Indeed, 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

Though initially viewed with skepticism, GPS has become a ubiquitous and life-changing technology. It is critical to the military operations of both the United States and many foreign countries, providing navigational information to everything from ground infantry units to guided missiles. In addition, GPS has been incorporated into a broad range of civilian applications. Most current cell phones, for example, include transmitters, enabling block-by-block directions for pedestrians and drivers alike. Civilian airplanes have also incorporated GPS transmitters, providing another component in airplanes' sophisticated navigational systems. 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.[3]

Moreover, GPS's effects on society are still developing. One application that is currently being developed is earthquake detection and measurement. Given appropriate transmitting equipment, GPS is capable of pinpointing locations to the thickness of a pencil lead, enabling scientists to gather data to complement what is available from seismographs. Additionally, the highly accurate timing systems integral to GPS are beginning to see use in internet and web technologies, enabling more efficient network communications. Altogether, it is hard to overstate the impact that GPS has had on the modern world.


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" - for which Parkinson was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004[6]
Parkinson, U.S. Patent RE37,256, "System and method for generating precise position determinations"


External links / I Had to Sell This to the Air Force, Because the Air Force Didn't Want It. [2]
Bradford Parkinson | Inside GNSS. [3]
Bradford Parkinson: GPS Pioneer. [4]
Bradford Parkinson SM '61. [5]
Bradford Parkinson Biography. [6]
Aero-Astro Magazine - Parkinson. [7]
Dr. Brad Parkinson. [8]
GPS inventor inducted into hall of fame. [9]
Hall of Fame | Induction | 2004 Inductees. [10]
Profile: Brad Parkinson. [11]


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