GPS Users get an Instant Upgrade
Based on excerpts from the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Geocaching
On May 2, 2000, at approximately midnight, eastern savings time, the great blue switch* controlling selective availability was pressed. Twenty-four satellites around the globe processed their new orders, and instantly the accuracy of GPS technology improved tenfold. Tens of thousands of GPS receivers around the world had an instant upgrade.
The announcement a day before came as a welcome surprise to everyone who worked with GPS technology. The government had planned to remove selective availability – but had until 2006 to do so. Now, said the White House, anyone could “precisely pinpoint their location or the location of items (such as game) left behind for later recovery.” How right they were.
London, Paris, New York, Beaver Creek?
For GPS enthusiasts, this was definitely a cause for celebration. Internet newsgroups suddenly teemed with ideas about how the technology could be used.
On May 3, one such enthusiast, Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant, wanted to test the accuracy by hiding a navigational target in the woods. He called the idea the “Great American GPS Stash Hunt” and posted it in an internet GPS users’ group. The idea was simple: Hide a container out in the woods and note the coordinates with a GPS unit.
The finder would then have to locate the container with only the use of his or her GPS receiver. The rules for the finder were simple: “Take some stuff, leave some stuff.”
On May 3rd he placed his own container, a black bucket, in the woods near Beaver Creek, Oregon, near Portland. Along with a logbook and pencil, he left various prize items including videos, books, software, and a slingshot. He shared the waypoint of his “stash” with the online community on sci.geo.satellite-nav:
N 45 17.460 W 122 24.800
Within three days, two different readers read about his stash on the Internet, used their own GPS receivers to find the container, and shared their experiences online. Throughout the next week, others excited by the prospect of hiding and finding stashes began hiding their own containers and posting coordinates. Like many new and innovative ideas on the Internet, the concept spread quickly – but this one required leaving your computer to participate.
Within the first month, Mike Teague, the first person to find Ulmer’s stash, began gathering the online posts of coordinates around the world and documenting them on his personal home page. The “GPS Stash Hunt” mailing list was created to discuss the emerging activity. Names were even tossed about to replace the name “stash” due to the negative connotations of that name. One such name was “geocaching.”
The Origins of Geocaching
Geocaching, first coined by Matt Stum on the “GPS Stash Hunt” mailing list on May 30, 2000, was the joining of two familiar words. The prefix geo, for Earth, was used to describe the global nature of the activity, but also for its use in familiar topics in gps such as geography.
Caching, from the word cache, has two different meanings, which makes it very appropriate for the activity. A french word invented in 1797, the original definition referred to a hiding place someone would use to temporarily store items. The word cache stirs up visions of pioneers, gold miners, and even pirates. Today the word is still even used in the news to describe hidden weapons locations.
The second use of cache has more recently been used in technology. Memory cache is computer storage that is used to quickly retrieve frequently used information. Your web browser, for example, stores images on disk so you don’t have to retrieve the same image every time you visit similar pages.
The combination of Earth, hiding, and technology made geocaching an excellent term for the activity. However the “GPS Stash Hunt” was the original and most widely used term until Mike Teague passed the torch to Jeremy Irish in September 2000.
The Birth of Geocaching.com
For the first few months, geocaching was confined to existing experienced GPS users who already used the technology for outdoor activities such as backpacking and boating. Most users had an existing knowledge of GPS and a firm grasp of obscure lingo like datums and WGS84. Due to both the player base and the newness of the activity, players had a steep learning curve before going out on their first cache hunt. Tools were scarce for determining whether a cache was nearby, if one existed at all.
As with most participants, Jeremy Irish, a web developer for a Seattle company, stumbled upon Mike Teague’s web site in July while doing research on GPS technology. The idea of treasure hunting and using tech-gadgets represented the marriage of two of his biggest interests. Discovering one was hidden nearby, Jeremy purchased his first GPS unit and went on his first hunt the following weekend.
After experiencing the thrill of finding his first cache, Irish decided to start a hobby site for the activity. Adopting the term geocaching, he created Geocaching.com and applied his professional web skills to create tools to improve the cache-hunting experience. The cache listings were still added by hand, but a database helped to standardize the listings. Additional features, like searching for caches around zip codes, made it easier for new players to find listings for nearby caches.
With Mike Teague’s valuable input, the new site was completed and announced to the stash-hunting community on September 2, 2000. At the time the site was launched there were 75 known caches in the world.
If You Hide It, They Will Come
Slashdot, a popular online magazine for techies, reported the new activity on September 25, 2000, introducing a larger group of technology professionals to the activity. The New York Times picked up the story and featured it in its “Circuits” section in October, starting a domino effect of articles written in magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets around the world. CNN even did a segment in December 2000 to profile the new hobby.
However, because there were so few caches in the world, many would-be participants discovered they didn’t have a cache listed nearby. Many wondered whether anyone would bother looking for a cache if they hid one in their area. The growing community chanted the mantra “If you hide it, they will come” to the newer players. After some reassurances, pioneers of the hobby started placing caches just to see whether people would go find them. They did.
Through word of mouth, press articles, and even accidental cache discoveries, more and more people have become involved in geocaching. First started by technology and GPS enthusiasts, the ranks of geocachers now include couples, families, and groups from all walks of life. The excitement of the hunt appeals to both the inner (and outer) child. Today you can do a search on just about anywhere in the world and be able to walk, bike, or drive to a nearby hidden cache.