Alum Wins Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering

March 4th, 2021 - 10:03pm

Dr. James Spilker Jr.The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering celebrates groundbreaking innovations in engineering and acknowledges an individual or team of engineers whose work has had a major impact on humanity. This year, College of Marin (COM) alumnus Dr. James Spilker Jr. was one of four Americans honored for their roles in developing the Global Positioning System (GPS).

After winning the award, Spilker paid a visit to his alma mater to tour the campus and speak with engineering students and faculty. While on campus, he shared how COM changed his life and his sentiments on the importance of mentorship in higher education.

“One of the things I want to make very clear is that without the education I got here—even though it was a limited time—it’s not clear to me that I would have won the Queen Elizabeth Prize and all kinds of other awards that I earned at Stanford,” said Spilker.

During his high school years, the teachers didn’t recognize what a gifted student he was. But, once he was at COM, it didn’t take long for his instructors to realize how smart Spilker was. He recalled two faculty members, Physics Professor Dr. C.A. Pulskamp and Engineering Professor Carlton Cherry, who recognized his potential. They provided curriculum to match and challenge his intelligence, but more importantly they mentored and encouraged him to apply to Stanford University. 

“They said I was the most gifted student they had ever seen, and that they were going to find a way to get me a scholarship to Stanford,” said Spilker.

And that’s exactly what they did. Spilker attended COM from 1951—53. With the help of these two professors and a Rotary scholarship, he transferred to Stanford, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

After graduating in 1958, he wrote and co-authored a number of papers on signal timing technology, which made possible the precision tracking of satellites necessary for GPS.

Spilker’s signal design, along with the work of three other laureates sharing in the prize—Dr. Bradford Parkinson, Hugo Fruehauf, and Richard Schwartz—underpins the incredibly complicated technology that makes GPS function. When thinking about the typical activities of a modern society, it is hard to identify those that don’t in some way rely on GPS.

COM was honored to welcome back alumnus Dr. James Spilker Jr. and congratulate him on winning this prestigious award.