Today’s GPS and telematics industries literally benefit billions of people around the planet and have a unique and not widely known history. Women’s History Month is the perfect time to share that story.
Two women, one whose name most are likely unfamiliar with, the other, for those of a certain age, will recognize immediately, are closely associated with the development of GPS and wireless communications technologies.
Dr. Gladys West was a mathematician who played a significant role in GPS technology development that has become an essential tool for consumers, governments, militaries — everyone.
Born in Virginia in 1930, Dr. West grew up on a small family farm and faced financial hardship and racial discrimination. Despite these challenges, she attended Virginia State University, earning a mathematics degree in 1952. She went on to pursue a career in research and worked for the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia — one of the only women to work there.
Hedy Lamarr was born in Austria in 1914 and became one of the world’s most renowned actresses, known for her stunning beauty and performance skills. She appeared in such Hollywood classics as “Algiers” and “Samson and Delilah.” She achieved worldwide accolades for her acting, but she was also a brilliant inventor and a pioneer in wireless communication. She appeared in 25 movies and socialized with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and business magnate Howard Hughes.
Dr. West began working on a project in the early 1960s that would eventually lead to GPS technology. Her work on the project involved developing algorithms to model the shape of the Earth, which was necessary for accurate GPS calculations. Her groundbreaking work and numerous contributions were essential to the development of the technology.
Despite her genius, Dr. West’s work remained largely unknown until the 2010s, when she finally earned the credit, she deserved.
Lamarr had no formal training in the sciences taught herself by tinkering, reading, and experimenting. During World War II, Lamarr read those radio-controlled torpedoes had been proposed, but enemies might be able to electronically jam the guidance system and set it off course. She discussed this problem with a friend who was both a pianist and composer. Together they realized that a frequency-hopping signal might prevent the torpedo’s radio guidance system from being tracked or jammed and proved their idea by synchronizing a miniaturized player-piano mechanism with radio signals.
In their system, the transmitter and receiver would use synchronized paper rolls with identical patterns of holes to hop between different frequencies, making it nearly impossible for anyone to intercept and decipher the message.
Despite its practical uses, the U.S. Navy initially rejected Lamarr and Antheil’s invention. Years later their frequency-hopping technology became the foundation for modern wireless communication technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS.
Back in 2004, the founders of Advantage’s parent company used GPS search-and-rescue technologies developed by West and Lamarr and used by the U.S. Marines and NASA to create emergency beacon technology. This technology enabled the military to locate individuals in remote off-signal areas. Procon used this same technology to provide Radio Shack with global beacon services, allowing them to find and assist drivers in need.
These two slices of women’s history testify to how creativity and innovation can come from unexpected places. Their efforts in wireless communications revolutionized how we communicate today and toppled stereotypes about women’s roles in technology and science. They also provided everyone here with careers!