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STEM-HISTORY: The Untold Story of the Secret Mission to Seize Nazi Map Data

Great STEM story explaining a bit about how the birth of GPS links to a quirky team who showered Europe in search of Nazi map data...

The work reached a culmination in 1951, with the completion of the European Datum, or ED50, which united the continent in a common geodetic network for the first time.

The ED50, in turn, became part of the foundation for a new global coordinate system known as the Universal Transverse Mercator, the standard coordinate system used by the U.S. military and NATO. It soon proved equally useful for civilian operations, and was adopted for applications as varied as economic development projects, ecological research and oil prospecting. William Rankin, a historian of science at Yale and author of the 2016 book After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century, says the Universal Transverse Mercator was a crucial step along the path from old-fashioned maps, which represented territory in an intuitively visual way, to coordinate systems such as GPS, which define locations with much greater numerical precision. UTM showed “how to think differently about space and location using mathematics,” Rankin says. “It was like GPS—before GPS.”

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