13 April 1960: the first satellite navigation system is launched

These days, satellite navigation systems are everywhere. Even the meanest smartphone can be used to guide you to your destination. Type in where you want to go, switch off brain, and follow the arrows. Only losers and old people use maps these days.

Satnavs aren’t not perfect, of course.  They can cause irritation to residents when their normally quiet streets get marked as a handy shortcut. And they regularly cause hilarity when we hear of another inattentive fool who’s driven into a river or off a cliff because that’s what the satnav told them to do.

And the whole thing began on this day in 1960 when Nasa sent the Transit 1B satellite into orbit.

The satellite was designed to provide positioning for the US Navy’s fleet of Polaris ballistic missile submarines, a task it performed for over 30 years. It was superseded by America’s Global Positioning System, the GPS known and loved by smartphone users the world over.

But GPS isn’t the only system in town. The Soviet Union launched its Glonass system in the late 1960s. Now run by Russia’s armed forces, it is the only other system to achieve whole earth coverage.

China’s BeiDou system has been operating since 2000, and aims to cover the whole world by 2020. And India has its IRNSS, which provides coverage over the sub-continent.

The EU isn’t being left behind either. Its Galileo system is scheduled to be operational by 2020, at the entirely reasonable cost of €5bn.