A Life: Roger Lee Easton Sr., 1921 — 2014; ‘Most of All, He Was a Solver of Problems’
Roger Easton, of Canaan, holds a full scale reproduction of the Vanguard I satellite at his home on April 29, 2010. Easton helped engineer the satellite, which has been in orbit for over 50 years. Easton was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on the Timation tracking system, which was the basis for Global Positioning System (GPS).
(Valley News - Aaron Rosenblatt)
Roger Easton, third from left, answers a question from astronaut Eugene Cernan, far left. Cernan and four other astronauts (l to r) Ken Mattingly, Ronald Evans, Robert Crippen, and Joseph Kerwin, were touring the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory's Washington, D.C. facilities in 1975. Cernan was the most recent astronaut to walk on the moon on Dec. 7, 1972. (Courtesy U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)
Canaan — It’s pretty hard to pin down exactly what Roger Easton’s lasting title should be.
He was trained as a physicist, but that hardly seems adequate to describe the man who may have had more to do with the development of GPS than just about anyone else.
During the space race with Russia while the U.S. was reeling from the wild success of Sputnik, Easton was an officer and scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.
There he determined that mounting an atomic clock to a satellite headed for space could be a large key to pinpointing objects far below on Earth.
What’s more — as if that wouldn’t have been plenty — the father of five came to realize that same step would open the door to synchronizing time around the globe to within a billionth of a second; another factor critical to GPS development.
So, master of space and time then? That handle would be too grandiose for a man who was, from birth, well-grounded on earth among the understated and unassuming folk of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
He was certainly an inventor, who held multiple patents for his creations. And there’s always the shopworn title of rocket scientist, but that doesn’t quite fit either, according to his daughter, Ruth Easton, 65, of Canaan.
“No, he wasn’t a rocket scientist; he was really a satellite scientist. But most of all, he was a solver of problems. All the things he worked on and developed were to solve some sort of problem,” she said.
And that included around the house, as well as around the globe, she said. For most of their years together as a growing family, home was the Washington suburb of Oxon Hill, Md.
Easton died May 8, 2014, at Wheelock Terrace in Hanover. He was 93. He had Parkinsonism, which presented none of the classic Parkinson’s tremors, but toward the end he was unable to open his eyes or swallow easily.
But he knew his family was there, and her dad was able to smile in response to what they had to say, Ruth Easton said.
His wife of 68 years, Barbara Coulter Easton, turned 93 last week.
“She’s doing pretty well. She’s at Wheelock Terrace, too. But it’s a big change for her after all those years,” her daughter said.
Sometimes, Roger Easton knew, the key to solving a problem was simply leaving things be, his Canaan friend and neighbor Russell Lester said.
Lester recalled the time he and Easton attached a rope to the Eastons’ dock in Clark Pond, tied it to a vehicle and started to pull the dock out for the coming winter. The rope didn’t make it. Neither did the dock, which slid down the steep slope, went back into the water and disappeared.
“Roger said the dock would be just as well to spend the winter there as anywhere,” Lester said with a laugh.
After 37 years at the Naval research lab, Easton retired and he and Barbara moved to Canaan in 1980. They lived on King Hill at the end of the road.
Easton served two terms in the New Hampshire House and ran for governor as Republican moderate, losing in the 1986 GOP primary to then-Gov. John Sununu. Easton, who later drove a Prius hybrid, opposed the Seabrook nuclear plant, Sununu was one of its biggest champions. Easton joked at the time that “the only thing worse than losing would be winning,” according to his obituary.
Another friend and neighbor, David McAlister, said he and his wife, Vicky, Canaan’s town clerk, and their family came to know and love Roger and Barbara Easton and their family.
He also remembered that dock.
“Although he had spent so much time in Washington, he was from Craftsbury Common, and he just loved it here. That’s a remote pond, and we would spend time on that dock and just listen and talk and visit.” McAlister fondly recalled the numerous family cookouts they’d have at the Eastons’ camp there each summer.
“He was a great man,” McAlister said.
A portion of GPS science involves satellites continuously broadcasting a digital radio signal that gives their own position and time of day, exact to that aforementioned billionth of a second. An earthbound GPS receiver takes that data from four satellites and uses it to calculate its position on the planet.
Easton came up with a lot of the scientific underpinning now in wide daily use.
Enough that his title should rightfully be “Father of GPS?”
“Yes,” his son, Richard said last week. “Father of GPS.” Richard Easton, 58, says he and co-author Eric F. Frazier did the research while preparing their 2013 book GPS Declassified From Smart Bombs to Smartphones, and he’s sure the evidence exists to support his dad’s dominant role in GPS development.
“Brad Parkinson would beg to differ,” he said in a telephone interview from his Winnetka, Ill., home. Parkinson and Ivan A. Getting, two other scientists and inventors, are often mentioned along with Roger Easton when the roots of GPS are discussed.
Richard Easton has been in demand for interviews regarding the book as news of his father’s passing has spread this spring. His dad was not a head-in-the-clouds scientist wrapped in theory, he said. Nor was he a seeker of titles and awards, many of which came his way regardless.
Easton was awarded the National Medal of Technology at the White House by President George W. Bush in 2006, and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory also established the Roger L. Easton Award in his honor.
“He had very good practical skills. He fixed equipment,” said his son. And as might be expected of a native Vermonter, his wit was wry and dry, his children say.
“It would take you a few minutes to realize you had just been zinged,” Ruth said. “He loved being in his workshop at home. He was a great guy.”
The children included Roger Jr. and two more sisters, Ann and Joan, both of whom died of cancer as adults.
Richard said they were all part of what would have been a very unusual group of neighborhood children anywhere but in the nation’s capital in the 1950s.
Very few of them, including the Easton kids, knew exactly what their fathers did for work. Much of that government employment was top secret during the Cold War, including Easton’s work on Project Vanguard that produced the first American satellite in space. It’s the oldest of all the satellites still in orbit.
But, according to Lester, Easton found one last use for GPS much closer to home. Using portable equipment he borrowed and with Lester helping, he pinpointed with scientific precision the boundaries of his property in Canaan.
“Pins in the ground can move,” Lester said. “He knew his couldn’t be moved.”
Bob Hookway can be reached at email@example.com.