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Commemorating the LORAN

One of the MIT Radiation Lab’s first creations, a radio navigation system, recognized by the IEEE as a ‘milestone’ in engineering.
A group gathered on July 29 at the Institute to celebrate the recent installation of a new IEEE plaque commemorating the LORAN, a radio navigation system created in 1940 at the MIT Radiation (Rad) Lab.

The LORAN (which stands for Long Range Navigation) is one of four milestones in electrical engineering and computing that the IEEE recognized in spring 2012. The July event marked the official public unveiling of the IEEE plaque, which is located on the first floor of the Stata Center at the base of the Dreyfoos Tower. (This is where Building 20, which housed the Rad Lab, once stood.)

Speakers at the event included: IEEE Boston Chair Robert Vice; Deborah Douglas, a curator at the MIT Museum; William T. Freeman, associate department head and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT; Arthur Winston, honorary chair and former president of the IEEE; Capt. Alan Arsenault of the U.S. Coast Guard; Gilmore Cooke, chair of IEEE Boston’s Milestones Committee; and MIT Vice President Claude Canizares.

They spoke about the history and significance of LORAN, which began as a project in 1940, more than a year after the breakout of World War II — and 14 months before the United States entered the war.

The first of three projects initiated at the Rad Lab under contract with the National Defense Research Committee, LORAN was a “hyperbolic navigation” system, which measures the difference in timing between synchronized, pulse-modulated signals received from two radio transmitters — the only non-microwave project carried out at the lab. The system enabled ships and aircraft to determine their position and speed from low-frequency radio signals. Crucial to the war effort, LORAN ultimately covered 30 percent of the earth’s surface, with 70 stations that enabled nighttime navigation service over the Pacific without breaking radio silence.

LORAN also proved useful in peacetime, becoming the chief navigation system for air and maritime transport around the world until it was superseded by satellite-based GPS. Even today, an enhanced version, eLORAN, is being considered as a backup to GPS and other satellite navigation systems.

LORAN was based on a suggestion by Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) Fellow Alfred Lee Loomis, a wealthy inventor and physicist who helped establish the lab and arranged for its initial funding before the federal government supported it. Another early leader in the project was Harvard University professor John Alvin “Jack” Pierce, recognized for his work on LORAN with the 1990 IEEE Medal for Engineering Excellence.

Many organizations and individuals contributed to the success of the LORAN project. In addition to the MIT scientists and engineers, supporters included members of the U.S. Coast Guard, including Lawrence M. Harding, a senior officer who made the rapid development and deployment of the system possible.

Melville Eastman, CEO and founder of General Radio Corporation, managed the LORAN division from 1941-1943. He was succeeded by Donald G. Fink, who had a long association with the IRE, which was a precursor — along with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) — of the IEEE.

The inscription on the IEEE LORAN plaque reads: “LORAN (1940-1946) The rapid development of LORAN — long range navigation — under wartime conditions at MIT’s Radiation Lab was not only a significant engineering feat but also transformed navigation, providing the world’s first near-real-time positioning information. Beginning in June 1942, the United States Coast Guard helped develop, install and operate Loran until 2010.”

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