Heddy Lamarr

Got GPS? Thank Hedy Lamarr

This entry is part 72 of 80 in the series Pangaea

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. Hedy Lamarr, the gorgeous and glamorous Hollywood star of the ‘30s and ‘40s, had nothing to do with the invention of GPS. She did, however, invent a technology that underpins almost all modern communications. Lamarr and avant-garde composer George Antheil invented and patented a technology that Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cellphones, drones, secure satellite communications, and GPS all employ: frequency hopping.

For those unfamiliar with Lamarr, a little background. She was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria in 1914. As a young girl her father took her on walks through their home town of Vienna, explaining how the technology around them worked. This undoubtedly sparked her lifelong curiosity and inventive nature. However, what most people noticed about Lamarr was her beauty, not her brains, leading her into a life in films which landed her in Hollywood working for MGM. For more information on her life and film career, check out her bio on IMDb.

Flash forward to the early ‘40s. Lamarr developed a passion for helping her adopted county in its fight against fascism. Her first idea involved radio-controlled torpedoes. For a torpedo to successfully hit its target it must be guided to the target via radio waves. Transmitting along a single band leaves the weapon open to jamming by the enemy. Working with Antheil, Lamarr developed what is now known as frequency-hopping spread-spectrum (FHSS) radio technology to overcome radio jamming. According to a blog on Texas Instruments’ website: “FHSS is a wireless technology that spreads signals over rapidly changing frequencies. Each available frequency band is divided into sub-frequencies. Signals rapidly change, or “hop,” among these sub-frequency bands in a pre-determined order.”

Although FHSS has been successfully employed for more than 60 years, when Lamarr and Antheil first presented their idea to the U.S. Navy they took a hard pass; the idea was just too ahead of its time.

It wasn’t until 1997 that Lamarr would receive recognition for her ground-breaking invention. The Electronic Frontier Foundation honored Lamarr with a special Pioneer Award, and she became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. Sadly, Lamarr never saw a penny from her invention.

For an informative and insightful look at the amazing life of Hedy Lamarr, including her invention of frequency hopping, check out “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” on Netflix.

This article appeared in xyHt‘s e-newsletter, Pangaea. We email it twice a month, and it covers a variety of unusual geospatial topics in a conversational tone. You’re welcome to subscribe to the e-newsletter here. (You’ll also receive the once-monthly Field Notes newsletter with your subscription.)Pangaea newsletter banner: unifying converging geospatial technologies

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