Most smartphone owners have felt it — GPS Shame. It strikes when you fire up an app to locate a building 200 feet away. How did anyone get anywhere before Google Maps? “Time and Navigation,” opening Friday at the National Air and Space Museum, has the answer: For a long time, most people didn’t get far. The exhibit covers the history of plotting travel by sea, in the air, in space and to the corner store, and its development from a specialized skill to something anybody with a smartphone can do.
It’s About Time
The exhibit first focuses on time, and for good reason. Accurate navigation was fairly impossible (unless you were the ancient Polynesians, who found their way across the Pacific Ocean by watching the stars and waves) until the 1700s, when English clockmaker John Harrison perfected a clock that stayed accurate over long periods — even on a jouncy ship. As people traveled faster and farther, clocks needed to be even more accurate, thus the atomic clocks we use to help probes find their way through space. “Time and Navigation” includes the first American-made seagoing clock, the clock Charles Lindbergh used on his journeys, tiny atomic clocks and a fancy satellite from a naval research program known as TIMATION (a nifty portmanteau of “time” and “navigation”).
A Better Direction
One story told in the exhibit is that of a seaplane that attempted the first non-stop flight from California to Hawaii in 1925. It got lost, ran out of gas and landed in the ocean, where it drifted for nine days before reaching Kauai. This led to improved in-flight navigation systems.
Put on Your Captain’s Hat
The exhibit encourages a hands-on approach to understanding various getting-around techniques. Pilot a space probe through the solar system, or master World War II-era radio navigation. Go old-school in an interactive display based on the record-breaking voyage of the clipper ship Flying Cloud, which in 1854 raced from New York to San Francisco in 89 days. A sextant is set up opposite a wall painted with stars; find Rigel (a star in the constellation Orion), then measure the angle between the star and the horizon. Charts and complex math follow, but you can skip that and just load the angle and time into a nearby computer to find out where you are. It’s so easy an 18th-century sea captain could do it — if he could get over the witchcraft box making the calculations for him.
What’s That About a Sextant?
You need three things to find your geographical position: the time, a sextant and a star above the horizon. “There’s somewhere on the earth where that star is directly overhead,” says Air and Space Museum geographer Andrew Johnston. Using the angle you find with the sextant, you can figure out how far away you are, in time and in distance, from the point where the star is directly overhead.
The Future Is Wow
The robot cars we were promised are finally coming! Meet Stanley, a vehicle designed by folks working for Google, pioneer of the self-driving car. Google’s headquartered in California, where driverless cars will be allowed on the road starting in 2015. Stanley was developed by military teams asked to build a car that could drive itself through the Mojave Desert. Surprisingly, the equipment that helps Stanley stay on track (laser scanners, GPS antennae and video cameras) is off-the-shelf, consumer-level tech.
Radar is a great tool for navigating on cloudy days, but it’s a blunt instrument. A map of WWII bomb sites shows Dresden suffered because cities are easy to find using radar. “[Allied forces] were going to bomb a refinery [near the city],” says exhibit co-curator Roger Connor. “But it was overcast, so they diverted to Dresden, which they could see on radar.”
National Air and Space Museum, Independence Avenue at 6th Street SW; opens Friday, free; 202-633-2214. (L’Enfant Plaza)