The heart of the Global Positioning System (GPS) is a series of military satellites that had been launched by the United States Government primarily for military applications. The first satellite was launched in 1978 and the system became fully operational in 1994. The United States government realised the possible beneficial applications of the system for non-military use and therefore included open civilian access in its design. The ‘civilian signals’ were left intentionally vague however. The technical term for this was selective availability. Under the system of selective availability GPS signals for general receivers were accurate only to around an area of 300 feet (approx 100 metres). In May 2000 the system was ‘sharpened’ to be accurate to within 16 to 49 feet (5 to 15 metres). This meant that GPS receivers could now pinpoint much smaller areas.
Many people realised that the applications emanating from the ending of selective availability could be vast. One of the first commercial applications was the development of satellite navigation for private vehicles; A technology that relies very heavily on GPS technology. What few people realised, however, was that the ending of selective availability would also have a very strong impact on the leisure market.
Many computer enthusiasts discussed ways in which sharper GPS signals could help people in their private pursuits. One of them, a computer consultant named Dave Ulmer, decided to test the accuracy of his GPS receiver (after the ending of selective availability) by carefully hiding something in a natural area and inviting other people to try to find it. Ulmer promoted this as the ‘Great American GPS Stash Hunt’. He hid his container (on 3 May 2000) in a wooded area near Beaver Creek, Oregon. Inside it was a logbook, a pencil, videos, books, software and a slingshot!
People read about Ulmer’s stash and many decided to go after it. Some of the finders posted descriptions of their experiences and some photographs on the web. A new trend was born! A community very quickly developed around what was then called ‘stash hunting’. One of the first persons to find Ulmer’s ‘stash’ was Mike Teague. Teague decided to recount this and subsequent experiences on his website and also went on to create a mailing list devoted to this exciting new activity. The ‘GPS Stash Hunt List’ was, among other things, used to coordinate placements and discoveries.
One of the hottest topics of discussion was what to call this emerging sport. A participant on the mailing list, Mike Stum, eventually came up with the word Geocaching. It soon gained wide acceptance as it so perfectly describes the sport:
Geo (Earth) – Signifies that it is a worldwide nature based activity
Caching – The word cache is derived from an old French word that describes a place where supplies are hidden. In modern usage the word is also used to describe the place where digital data is stored. These two shades of meaning are perfectly combined when it comes to geocaching as it points to both the ‘treasure hunt’ and technological aspects of it.
Initially geocaching was seen as a specialist and highly technical activity, best left to techies who appreciate adventure sports. It may have stayed this way if it was not for the tireless efforts of Jeremy Irish, a web developer from Seattle. He was responsible (on 2 September 2000) for the launching of the website Geocaching.com.
This website provided a clearinghouse where people could easily log caches, share advice, and describe their experiences. In the early years the site hosted a lot of discussions about how this new pursuit could be developed. When the site was launched there were about 75 geocaches listed in its database and many people wondered aloud if the sport had any future. The founding of Geocaching.com played a pivotal role in securing that future. It served, and still serves, as a repository of information and also as a place where people could in a sense cheer each other on. The fact that a dedicated community developed in this way is helping to move geocaching from the fringes of the Internet to becoming a mainstream pursuit. This process was further helped along by the fact that more and more people in the media noticed what was going on and started to promote geocaching on the radio, the internet, and in newsprint.
On Monday 8th March 2010 the number of active caches hidden worldwide reached 1,000,000
One million caches hidden in just on 10 years. Where will we be in another 10 years?