Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian navigates history from Galileo to GPS


In the age of hand-held GPS devices, navigating by the stars may seem quaint and irrelevant. So it may come as a surprise that it took hundreds of years to develop the tools needed to find our way across oceans, through the air and into deep space.

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum first major exhibit focused on navigation includes instruments that aviator Charles Lindbergh used to learn celestial navigation and the clock he used during his milestone trans-Atlantic flight — along with much luck — to help make his way from New York to Paris in 1927.

The museum pulled together stories and objects from major milestones and breakthroughs over the course of 300 years for the new permanent exhibition Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There. The $3.5 million gallery shows the evolution of marine, air and space navigation, as well as a glimpse of the future with a robotic-driven car that can navigate a race course.

Navigation proved a worthy topic for the museum because it’s something we often take for granted nowadays, curator Paul Ceruzzi said. “It’s an invisible utility. It’s like electric power or telephones,” he said. “It’s so critical to our daily lives, but it’s invisible. You don’t see it.”

In order for people to know where they are on a map, they need a reliable clock. The first clocks were invented in Europe in the 1300s, but creating a clock that could keep accurate time at sea wasn’t invented until the late 1700s. It was a challenge some of the greatest minds tried to tackle, including Galileo, said curator Carlene Stephens, who oversees the clock collection at the National Museum of American History.

The new exhibit shows early instruments used by mariners and models of clocks designed by Galileo, as well as the earliest marine chronometer made in the United States during the War of 1812.

The advent of radio navigation was pivotal for air travel, though it came after Lindbergh’s historic flight. In 1931 and 1933, Wiley Post and navigator Harold Gatty flew the Lockheed Vega “Winnie Mae” to break the records for around-the-world flights. The plane is the gallery’s centerpiece.

The museum also is showing milestones in space navigation, including the advent of the atomic clock, a sextant that Apollo astronauts used to go to the moon and systems used to send spacecraft to other planets.

In more recent years, innovators combined all these past discoveries to develop satellite navigation and the military’s breakthroughs to create the Global Positioning System that so many people use now on smartphones and cars.

“I don’t think people realize that we shrank (navigational) devices that filled up rooms. It’s now handheld,” Ceruzzi said.

The story of navigation has been mostly untold and key innovations are largely forgotten, Stephens said.

“It’s for people who live in a technical world who don’t think science and technology have anything to do with them,” she said. “We have chosen to be a society based on science and technology, and it has a lot to do with us, whether we think it does or not.”

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