This is how Hedy Lamarr, the movie beauty of the 30s, laid the foundations for the GPS in cars
Few will hear the name of Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (1941-2000), the inventor of GPS , but Hedy Lamarr, the actress who starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, one of those unforgettable feature films in the history of cinema. Hedy Lamarr, who changed her last name to Lamarr in honor of silent film actress Barbara La Marr, combined her life in the world of celluloid with discoveries in the field of engineering. His works, revolutionary at the time, laid the foundations for technologies that we use on a daily basis today, such as Bluetooth, WiFi or GPS.
Hedy Lamarr was considered for many years the most beautiful woman in the world, an actress who dazzled the public in the great productions of the so-called “golden era” of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer . In the 1930s and 1940s, she shared the bill with actors of the stature of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Spencer Tracy and became an erotic myth after starring in the first nude in the history of commercial cinema at the age of 18. Gustav Machatý’s film Ecstasy (1934) bears witness to that audacity that scandalized the Mostra.
“When I grow up I want to be an engineer”
Lamarr began her engineering studies at the age of 16, but three years later, in 1933, she abandoned them, attracted to give free rein to her artistic vein. Her first performances took place at the Berlin theater as a student of director Max Reinhardt. There began a life of cinematographic successes that left his technical career aside.
The same did not happen with his personal life. She married Austrian arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl, 30 years her senior and a supplier of arms and ammunition to the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, as well as a friend of Hitler and Mussolini. Her husband’s jealousy temporarily removed her from the cinema and confined her to her home under strict control. Lamarr had to abandon her fledgling film career, and any other type of activity that was not that of being Mandl’s wife.
The pressure ended up causing Lamarr to flee the marital home. There have been many legends about how he did it, but in his autobiography he explains that he administered a sleeping pill to his assistant and left the house disguised as her. Thus he was able to reach the train station, travel to Paris and from there to London, where he contacted the businessman of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
A provocation in the form of war
But for someone like Hedy Lamarr who had an engineering bug running through her veins, the outbreak of World War II was quite a challenge because she had an innate talent for mathematics and physics and enormous creativity in solving complex problems.
It was she, for example, who gave Howard Hughes -a great friend and lover- the idea of evolving the design of airplane wings, adding curves and a more aerodynamic shape inspired by the bodies of fish and birds.
Lamarr worked on ideas as diverse as new traffic signals or pills to turn water into soft drinks, but his most important invention was a secret communications system.
Hedy knew that governments were reluctant to build a guided missile for fear that the control signals would be easily intercepted or jammed by the enemy. The solution came to him by talking to his neighbor the composer George Antheil. There, among community problems, he came up with the idea of a system that constantly changed the frequency between transmitter and receiver. Together with his neighbor, he also created a patented mechanism in 1942 to build radio-controlled torpedoes that could not detect enemies.
all for the cause
A secularized Jew and victim of a Nazi ex-husband, she made all this knowledge available to the United States government, but military officials concluded that the invention was too bulky to be practical.
Lamarr had been ahead of his time. The updated and more compact size device was finally used in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Lamarr’s idea of using ever-changing frequencies to avoid interference has ended up being a key part of in-car GPS, Bluetooth and WiFi connections.
As in other cases, recognition came late. She received the Electronic Frontier Foundation ‘s Pioneer Award in 1997. Lamarr was then living in seclusion at her home in Florida. There were barely three years left for his death. The actress and creator of the GPS bases refused to attend the award ceremony. Instead, he sent a thank you recording. What we don’t know is whether he sent it using ever-changing frequencies to send interference or used a messenger, like we all did twenty years ago.