Remembering Jim Spilker

We mourn the loss of Professor James Spilker, Jr, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) pioneer, philanthropist, entrepreneur and friend.  Jim’s work touches billions and provides one of the key underpinnings to daily life. He passed away on September 24, 2019 at age 86.

“Jim’s contributions to human well-being and to fundamental science have positively impacted people around the world,” said Vint Cerf, Chairman of the Marconi Society.  “He and his wife, Anna Marie, have given generously to ensure that engineering entrepreneurship and creativity are nurtured.”

Jim was brought up by a single mother in difficult circumstances, with many childhood health issues, including being legally blind.  Nevertheless, he turned out to be a good student, graduating with a Bank of America Achievement Award in Science and Mathematics.  He then joined the nearby two-year community college from where his excellent performance allowed him to transfer to Stanford after passing the required entrance exam with a perfect score in mathematics.  He graduated 5 years later with Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD degrees in electrical engineering.   Jim also developed a passion for lifelong learning and for the value of education.

Jim’s career started at Lockheed Research Labs, where he invented a variant of the well-known phase-locked loop called the delay-locked loop, described in 1961 in a paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the IEEE.  Variants of the DLL are still widely used in GPS receivers. He then moved to Ford Aerospace, where he was the payload team leader for the first US military communication satellites. He later led the Ford Aerospace Air Force 621B contract, the predecessor to GPS.

In 1973, Jim cofounded Stanford Telecommunications with two colleagues from Ford Aerospace and with no VC funding.  This was very timely, because shortly thereafter, Colonel Brad Parkinson (2016 Marconi Fellow), the chief architect behind GPS, awarded a contract to this infant company to design the signals for GPS.  Jim thus became the key architect of the unique GPS signal structure, and his company developed the unique Global Monitoring Equipment that has enabled unprecedented world-wide accuracy. Brad commented, “We have lost a giant in the field of Digital Communications.  Jim’s pioneering efforts in developing our signal were a critical element in creating GPS– a system that benefits all of humanity.”

Over the next 25 years, Jim grew Stanford Telecom into a company of 1300 employees that operated in five states and was sold in 1999.

In 2001, he joined Stanford’s faculty as an Adjunct Professor.  Besides lecturing on satellite communications, Jim also co-founded the Stanford Research Center for Position, Navigation and Time (PNT), with several industry affiliates. In 2005, he became the co-founder and executive chairman of AOSense Corporation, developing atomic physics based inertial guidance technology to aid GPS navigation.

Reflecting his deep devotion to education, Jim and his wife, Anna Marie, donated $28M to Stanford University in 2012 to build the James and Anna Marie Spilker Engineering and Applied Sciences Building and to endow a professorship at the School of Engineering.

“Jim’s primary motivation in all he did, professional and personal, was to serve others as best he could,” said Anna Marie Spilker.  “Jim used his inventiveness of thinking to help create whole new industries while he was solving the world’s biggest engineering challenges. With top clearances, he assisted Presidents of the United States to accomplish their goals without public recognition. That was who he was.”

Earlier this year, Jim was honored with the 2019 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, together with Brad Parkinson, Hugo Fruehauf and Richard Schwartz.  His many other honors include the IEEE Edison Gold Medal, the US Air Force Space Command Recognition Award and the Institute of Navigation Kepler Award.

“Jim was always very proud of his critical technical contributions to GPS, including accounting for general relativity effects,” Professor Thomas Kailath and Marconi Society Lifetime Achievement Award recipient tells us.  “His life story is remarkable, rising from challenging beginnings to make lasting contributions to academia, industry and philanthropy. Jim never stopped learning and inventing, working towards the end of his life on vector processing using large numbers of satellites in parallel to greatly improve navigation integrity. We will miss him.”