Anna Marie Spilker journeyed to London in February with her husband, James Spilker Jr., a renowned engineer and pioneer of global positioning system technology, or GPS. They were there because James Spilker, or Jim to those who knew him, was named as the winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.
Few knew his eyesight was nearly gone and his health was failing.
James Spilker died before the formal ceremony, leaving his wife to make this journey to England in December without her husband of more than 45 years.
She accepted the prize on his behalf on Dec. 3. In her speech she said, “Jim’s favorite motto was ‘Engineering technology is the necessary catalyst for world-changing benefits to humanity. It’s magic.’”
The pair met at Stanford’s track-and-field venue, Angell Field. In his biography, James Spilker describes his wife as “a very attractive, athletic Bavarian girl.” She was on her way to a date with someone else.
But he persisted and even rode his white horse from Los Altos Hills to the Stanford campus to let her ride it, knowing Anna Marie Spilker loved horses. Their romance led to marriage.
She supported her husband financially when they married, as he had just started Stanford Telecommunications Inc. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment. After carpooling to and from work and going to the gym together — James Spilker was a national title-winning bodybuilder — the Spilkers would put their dinner on a Hibachi grill to cook and take a ride around the waterways near their home in a used canoe.
In the evenings, James Spilker would continue a different kind of work, writing technical books. In later years, he designed their house in Half Moon Bay.
“He was just a real hard worker,” Anna Marie Spilker said. “He said he doesn’t really have a job because he would do it for free.”
His first contract came from Bradford Parkinson, at the time a colonel who was tasked with finding a team to develop GPS.
“It was certainly the initiation of a very wonderful company and also a very nice relationship I had with Jim,” said Parkinson, who was also awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.
The pair continued developing GPS technology for the military, believing it would expand beyond. They both taught at Stanford and edited books together.
James Spilker had a humble start to life. Raised by a poor single mom who had to catch a 5 a.m. bus each morning to get to her job in San Francisco, he was legally blind without glasses, sickly and struggled to see the blackboard in school.
In his memoir he wrote, “I wore clean but old clothes and was treated as a poor outcast by other students.”
It wasn’t until attending the College of Marin, where his professors realized how intelligent he was, that he was encouraged to pursue an education at Stanford. He received a full-tuition scholarship and completed his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees there. Later, he became a professor and donated $28 million to Stanford for a building that was named in his and Anna Marie Spilker’s honor. He was a philanthropist to the end, donating his share of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering money to the engineering school.
Anna Marie Spilker said her husband was the “consummate engineer” and that he was successful, in part, because he could identify problems. He had a reputation for taking on the issues that nobody else could seem to solve.
“(GPS) doesn’t just give you directions,” Anna Marie Spilker said. “It’s in the banking system. It’s in the airplanes. It’s in every mobile device.”
The award ceremony was held at Buckingham Palace where the recipients, including Anne Marie Spilker, were able to wander around the palace after a thorough security screening. They met Prince Charles as well. He presented the awards.
“The story is that you can create your future,” Anna Marie Spilker said. “You can create your future. That’s what he wanted to share with others. You could create your own future and you just have to have a vision and think big.”