Few people today who use GPS technology know its fascinating history. For example, did you know that the technological precursor to GPS was invented in the 1940s as a response to Nazi attacks on civilian vessels? Originally created as a frequency-hopping system used to hide Allied torpedoes from Nazi sensors, this technology expanded to become what we now know as GPS, Bluetooth, and WiFi.
Beauty and the Brain
Who do we have to thank for the aforementioned technological advances? None other than Hollywood actress and beauty icon, Hedy Lamarr. Born in 1915 Austria to Jewish parents, Hedy Lamarr lived a tumultuous early life. At 19, she fled an unhappy marriage, ran away to America, and charmed her way into Hollywood fame. Known for her beauty and appearances in films such as Samson and Delilah, she quickly settled into life in Beverly Hills, California. In her spare time, she tinkered with new ideas and tech equipment. When World War II began, Lamarr donated her patented frequency-hopping technology to the U.S. government to fight, in her own way, against the Nazi regime.
Sputnik in Space
Years later, the Soviet Union launched a man-made satellite named ‘Sputnik’ into space. Young American physicists George Weiffenbach and William Guier tracked the satellite’s process across the sky through its radio transmissions, using equipment Weiffenbach had on hand for his Doctoral Thesis. Their office became a hot spot for visitors eager to eavesdrop on the first satellite in space. Locating where Sputnik was in orbit was a predecessor to the GPS tracking data collection we use today.
In 1960, the United States navy successfully tested a satellite navigation system named TRANSIT. Using the Doppler effect (the calculation of location based on sound frequencies), the Navy was not only able to locate the satellite’s exact position, but also created the world’s first timekeeping service, allowing clocks around the globe to be synchronized with a 50 microsecond accuracy rate.
In 1978, the United States government further expanded their network by launching ten GPS satellite prototypes into space. The government slowly built their space satellite location system until, in 1989, under the watch of modern GPS inventor and naval engineer Roger Easton, the first official GPS satellite was sent to space. In the same year, President Ronald Reagan issued a decree that made a select few GPS satellites available to the public. A little over a decade later, all GPS satellites were opened to the public, allowing private citizens access to the precise locating technology once reserved solely for the military.
GPS technology as we know it today is extremely versatile and is used for a wide variety of things around the world including commercial fleet tracking, military operations, outdoors exploration, and even emergency assistance for Search and Rescue crews. Imagine a world without GPS, without WiFi, and without Bluetooth. It wasn’t so long ago when we could not even comprehend civilian access to these technologies. Fortunately for many of us, businesses took these ideas and utilized them to ultimate advantage for efficiency and profit. You might say Hedy Lamarr did society a great service when she created her frequency-hopping communication system, as it has changed the way our entire world functions.