“I’ve spent my whole life measuring time”
The Global Positioning System (GPS), today one of the most versatile technologies on the planet, was still a highly experimental, underfunded military project when it first piqued Jim Sorden’s interest in the mid-1980s.
But its potential compelled Sorden to make a bold move, leaving his 24-year career with Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto to join a small startup called Trimble Navigation. Long before the technology started popping into everything from auto dashboards to golf bags, Charles Trimble had some early hunches on civilian GPS applications. “It was a gamble at the time,” says Sorden, a 1962 graduate and major supporter of electrical and computer engineering. “But I thought this one had a chance. So at the age of 50, I took a flier on it. It was terrific.”
Trimble became the first company to launch viable, effective products in the GPS arena, starting with applications in surveying, mining, offshore drilling and construction. Sorden says Trimble’s precision GPS surveying systems made a massive impact on the field, where heavy, slow and expensive were once the norm.
They transformed a process—which once required 100-pound GPS machines costing $250,000 and requiring a full day to produce a single, precision measurement—into a digital solution that provided real-time measurements in seconds, at an equipment cost of under $25,000. “The productivity of surveyors increased 10- to 100-fold,” he says.
Sorden began at Trimble in 1987 as VP of product development and had 10 staff engineers. By the late 1990s, Sorden had more than 1,500 engineering, marketing, manufacturing and financial staff working in his division. “When Trimble started, the military wasn’t even convinced GPS worked,” says Sorden. “But our founder had experience in the chip industry and figured if GPS is going to work, it will have to be all digital. That was the primary reason for our early success. We ended up playing a big role in getting GPS fully funded by the government, because at no cost to the government, we demonstrated practical military GPS and we found uses the military never thought about.”
The United States only had four good satellites in orbit when he first started, Sorden says. They could only retrieve measuring points when all satellites were ideally aligned, for a few hours each day. But they demonstrated during those windows they could survey to within one inch of accuracy. “The military was happy to get data with accuracy levels within 50 feet, until the Gulf War in the early ’90s, when the need for precise GPS became apparent,” he says.
One of Sorden’s favorite applications is in farming. “Farmers always plant and harvest their crops at the absolute peak time. They work all day and night until the planting or harvesting is done, and it may take 30 or more hours,” he says. “That first hour is all straight rows … but you’re not very good after three hours.”
Today, for about $3,000, a farmer can install a complete GPS system on his tractor that will guide absolutely straight rows every time. “This was a huge enhancement to farming productivity, with the side benefit in that it helps farmers precisely measure the per-bushel productivity of each small piece of their land,” says Sorden.
He describes his Hewlett Packard years as almost like home. “You were working for Mother HP,” he says. “They really took care of their employees, with high expectations for hard work.”
The company did not offer retirement plans, but instead offered inexpensive HP stock purchase plans and options, which proved to be infinitely more lucrative given the growth of the company from the 1950s to ‘90s.
Sorden started out his career simply wanting to be an engineer, yet kept receiving opportunities from HP to move into management and strategic planning. He rose to each challenge, often with help from additional courses at nearby Stanford University.
“Some people are really good at being clever and productive engineers and when promoted, find out they’re not very good managers or leaders,” he says. “I think I was good because I was a boss in the army, Sergeant Sorden. I actually was awful, but I learned all the things not to do.”
He enlisted in the U.S. Army the day he graduated from Madison West High School in 1955. He spent five years in the military—three active duty; two in active reserves. Enrolling at UW-Madison after his military commitment, he received his bachelor’s in the minimum time. He then enrolled in the ECE graduate program and also was a research assistant. Sorden and his wife, Anne, support an endowed professorship, currently held by David Anderson, in the department.
His research expertise was in developing measurement instruments to analyze time and amplitude to achieve ever-increasing levels of accuracy. Sorden holds eight U.S. patents, primarily in the measurement field, and his expertise was tapped by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s during its exploration of “Star Wars,” the satellite-based missile defense system.
“I’ve spent my whole life measuring time,” he quips.