GPS, or Global Positioning System, was developed by the US Department of Defense. This satellite navigation system was intended for military use and therefore the signals were scrambled, limiting accuracy for civilian use to about 100 meters. On May 1, 2000, President Clinton announced that this scrambling, known as Selective Availability (SA), would be turned off. Civilians were then able to enjoy accuracy on the order of 10 meters.
On May 3, 2000, Dave Ulmer proposed a way to celebrate the demise of SA. He hid a bucket of trinkets in the woods outside Portland, Oregon and announced its location in a posting made to the USENET newsgroup sci.geo.satellite-nav. This announcement is remarkable for laying out the essence of the hobby that is still in place today. It's all there. The container. The trinkets. The log book. The rule of take something, leave something, sign the logbook. Dave Ulmer invented geocaching in one fell swoop in that newsgroup posting.
Within a day, the original stash had been found. Within days, more stashes had been hidden in California, Kansas, and Illinois. Within a month, a stash had been hidden as far away as Australia. The hobby was fast on its way to being a worldwide phenomenon.
On May 8, Mike Teague announced a Web site for collecting the locations of caches. The original Web page is gone, but thanks to the Wayback Machine, a copy of the GPS Stash Hunt Homepage still exists.
On May 15, James Coburn set up a mailing list on eGroups (now Yahoo!) for discussion of geocaching. The list is still in existence. Its archives contain the best record of the early days of the hobby.
On May 30, a new name was coined for the hobby. Matt Stum suggested "geocaching" to avoid the negative connotations of the word "stash".
So, within a month, the hobby had in place the rules, its first hides and finds, a mailing list and a home page. And the number of caches was growing fast.
On September 2, 2000, Jeremy Irish emailed the gpsstash mailing list that he had registered the domain name geocaching.com and had setup his own Web site. He copied the caches from Mike Teague's database into his own. On September 6, Mike Teague announced that Jeremy Irish was taking over cache listings.
From the outset, Jeremy Irish considered ways to make money from geocaching. Geocaching.com was setup as a .com site, not .org. He sold banner ads to GPS manufacturers and retailers. He soon gave up on banner ads, which he discovered did not make that much in revenue. He accepted direct donations via PayPal and arranged commissions from GPS retailers through Web site referrals. He also turned to clothing sales. He claimed to have coined the word geocaching and applied for a trademark on the word, despite it being in common use as descriptive of the hobby since the month geocaching was invented. He incorporated as Grounded, Inc.
Some moves were immediately controversial. Early on, when geocaching was still smaller than the older hobby of Letterboxing, Irish made an attempt to absorb Letterboxing into the geocaching.com Web site. The move was resisted by other members of the gpsstash mailing list. Eventually, Irish gave up trying to take over Web services for Letterboxing.
Another controversial move was the monopoly control Irish unilaterally imposed over the database of cache locations, refusing to provide the full list to anyone. Criticisms of his actions on the original gpsstash mailing list were met with the establishment of his own mailing list hosted on his own geocaching.com site. Ironically, Irish cited "moderation" of his own posts as a reason why he would no longer participate in geocaching discussions on the only geocaching mailing list at that time. Censorship of posts would soon become a controversial matter on Irish's own Web site.
In the meantime, of course, geocachers were busy hiding and finding geocaches in an ever growing number of countries. That brings us to the end of 2000, just a short 8 months after the invention of the hobby. The great controversies still lay in the future: pin maps and copyright and the Planet of the Apes commercial caches and censorship of the Creator of Geocaching and pay-to-play members-only caches. And how Dave Ulmer and Navicache and Robin Lovelock became words that you dare not utter on geocaching.com.
The first recorded instance of a geocaching get-together (now known as an event cache) was held in Austin, Texas, on March 24, 2001. It was hosted by Eoghan and Pumpkin Princess. The "hide" date was set as the actual date of the event (which became standard practice) and the meeting location coordinates were used for the "cache coordinates".
About this time, a geocacher in New York state by the name of Quinn set up a regional geocaching Web site named Navicache. Reportedly, Jeremy Irish threatened a lawsuit unless Quinn's site delete use of the word geocaching, presumably because of Irish's trademark application. Quinn resisted and instead turned Navicache.com into a full-fledged geocaching resource, adding cache listings. Navicache.com became the largest alternative database of cache listings.
A geocacher in California named Ed Hall (aka Buxley) created online maps showing the locations of geocaches. Rather than welcome Buxley's contribution towards promoting the new sport of geocaching, in May, 2001, Jeremy Irish threatened legal action unless Buxley add a copyright notice to his maps stating "Geocaching Data Copyright 2001 Grounded, Inc." Irish also removed the link to Buxley's Web pages from geocaching.com and announced the release of his own basic mapping capability. The incident received widespread attention when it was reported in a Slashdot article.
In May, 2001, Irish extended geocaching.com's business model more directly into the pay-to-play world, despite a pledge to keep the game "free" and "non-commercial." Besides the banner ads, clothing sales, and sales of geocaching log books, bumper stickers, decals, etc., he now introduced "members-only caches" and fee-based hitchhiker logging. The members-only caches were accessible only to those who paid a $30/year membership fee. Likewise, the ability to track the movements of hitchhikers, aka Travel Bugs (TM), using the site's own logging system, was available only to those who paid Irish $5.95 per hitchhiker (informal, home-grown methods of tracking one's hitchhikers remained free, of course). These moves upset some geocachers, but others defended Irish and the new pay-to-play schemes became firmly established. By mid-2003, geocaching.com had over 150,000 registered users, including an estimated 7,200 paid subscribers at $30 per year.
Besides the earlier established Navicache.com, another full-featured geocaching site emerged in reaction to geocaching.com's increased commercialization and monopolistic control over the hobby. GeocachingWorldwide<//a> was developed by an Australian geocacher, Jeremy Hurst, interested in developing a system whereby multiple Web sites would share data about geocache coordinates. Sites would be free to compete on features, not the geocache data contributed by geocachers themselves. Despite a promising beginning, demands on the Webmaster's time by work and family prevented continued development and activity at GeocachingWorldwide ceased in late 2001.
Geocaching.com's reaction to new geocaching Web sites was to censor the mention of their names in the geocaching.com forums. This censorship led to the establishment of a USENET newsgroup, alt.rec.geocaching, a forum uncensorable not only by Irish, but by any geocacher or geocaching organization.
A fourth full-featured geocaching Web site, GeoGamer.com (no longer in existence), emerged from nowhere in June, 2002. Its developers openly presented it as a commercial geocaching site, which ironically triggered critical postings in the geocaching.com forums against commercial geocaching Web sites. However, after a brief spate of messages to the GeoGamer forums, there was no further activity at GeoGamer.com.
Not all the controversies in geocaching were over the monopolistic practices of Irish and Grounded, Inc. Ironically, one of the most bitter dealt with a single geocacher and his use of the hobby to promote his own GPS-related business. Robin Lovelock, of the UK, created many caches near his own home, leaving his business card and a CD-ROM of his software in each. This combination of cache density and personal advertising irritated other geocachers to the point where some of Robin Lovelock's caches were plundered and his name became unmentionable in the UK forums on geocaching.com.
As of early 2006, many Web sites had emerged that listed geocache listings. Some of these had short lives, some had staying power. The known sites (with the date they began accepting geocache listings):