How do you get from one point to another today? You enter an address or two into your GPS in either your smartphone or car, right? It seems unthinkable to navigate a course in any type of vehicle without one. But if you reach deep into your memory banks, you may remember a time when GPS seemed like a concept from The Jetsons, if you even thought of it at all.

Of course, the military was using GPS long before a tragic air disaster paved the way for its availability to civilians. Before that, you were forced to rely on a number of low-tech methods that could be frustratingly inaccurate.

Here’s a look back at some of the ways that travelers navigated across land, sea or air before GPS became a household acronym.

  • Radar navigation involves transmitting an electromagnetic signal at a target and using the reflected echo to calculate distance. When the system uses sound waves, it’s known as sonar navigation. This method has been used extensively to track aircraft and marine vehicles.
  • Sextants were used by explorers like Sir Edmund Shackleton to navigate across the oceans. This tool uses a two-mirror system to measure the angle of a celestial body such as the sun in relation to the horizon. Despite being relatively simple, sextants were incredibly accurate.
  • Chronometers were timekeeping devices created for use at sea, where temperature changes and the ship’s motion rendered traditional clocks unusable. Their accuracy at determining longitude made them valuable navigational tools.
  • Maps and atlases were the navigational aids of choice for most land-bound travelers. While atlases became more of a tool for school children studying geography, maps improved on them in terms of portability. However, it was difficult to keep them current, resulting in frustration when a route was found to be obsolete. Real-time updates such as warnings on road construction or recent accidents were unheard of.

Navigation before GPS text over infographic timeline of the history of GPS

For vehicle fleet owners, GPS tracking is now no longer a rarely used luxury but is used to monitor the location of vehicles and equipment revolutionizing how a business keeps track of expensive assets.

In five years’ time you’ll be thinking back to the days before asset tracking became commonplace just as we consider how GPS mapping has revolutionized how we travel. As with most technological advances, GPS seemed at first to be an interesting but non-essential luxury.

Now, most people can’t remember a time without it. The next time you’re on vacation and find your way to all the top attractions in the blink of an eye, or look to see where a piece of equipment is, give thanks for those satellites in the sky.