How Hedy Lamarr and avant garde music are linked to GPS…


Now here’s something you might not know about Hedy Lamarr…and GPS

The great Hollywood star – whose sensual early film Exstase caused such a furore – was the co-inventor of a ground-breaking radio technology on which GPS relies.

Together with Georges Antheil – the avant garde French composer – she dreamt up during World War II a new and secure way of transmitting guidance signals to torpedoes.   It was, bizarrely, inspired in part by Antheil’s work with the artist Fernand Léger on his famous Ballet Méchanique of 1924.

Highly resistant to interference or jamming, the frequency-hopping ‘spread-spectrum’ signal structure that Lamarr and Antheil co-invented (and patented) was not adopted at the time.  But a version is now used in many different applications – including GPS.

A hell of a lot more than a pretty face!  And why should anyone be surprised?


‘Deep Sea and Foreign-Going’

I’ve just finished reading a really fascinating account by Rose George of life aboard a modern container ship on a voyage from Felixtowe to Singapore.   Packed with information about piracy, pollution, dodgy ‘flags of convenience’, and a whole lot more besides, it’s a healthy reminder of the vast scale and vital importance of what she calls ‘the invisible industry’.  George also describes vividly how tough, lonely and thankless the seaman’s life remains.  In fact, in many ways, working conditions seem to have got worse rather than better in recent years.

What really caught my eye though was George’s description of the captain of the Maersk Kendal, a man close to retirement with more than forty years service behind him.  She obviously has great affection and respect for Captain Glen, whose conversation is littered with references to ‘Henry The Navigator’.   His nickname is ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’.

Captain Glen, she says, ‘commands a ship guided by gadgetry, but he still loves to move through the sea using only what it and the sky can tell him’.  He is wedded to celestial navigation, though he no longer has much time to practise it – and, of course, even less need in the age of GPS.

‘I get great satisfaction’, the Captain tells George, ‘just steaming on an ocean passage and plotting the position from the heavenly bodies. The biggest kick is when you’ve never seen land for days on end and you didn’t have a satellite navigator, and then right on the money, where you say there should be land or a terrestrial feature, there it is. Henry the Navigator.’

The captain’s former cadets reminisce fondly online about ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ and his attachment to his sextant – especially his determination to teach them how to use one!  He despairs that the officers aboard the Kendal can’t use the ship’s sextant, Chinese-made now, but still kept in a box on the bridge, just in case.

Deep Sea and Foreign-Going by Rose George was published by Portobello Books in 2013.  If you’re interested in the sea and ships, you should buy a copy right away!


Animal navigation

We like to think we’re special, don’t we?   But when it comes to navigation some animal species make us humans look pretty feeble.

Everyone knows about the amazing ability of pigeons to find their way back to their lofts.  But what about butterflies?  Or seals?  Or salmon?  Or even dung beetles?

Research is revealing more and more fascinating details about how different species find their way – over thousands of miles or maybe just a few yards.

They don’t use sextants of course – or instruments of any kind.  Newly-emerged Monarch butterflies for example can find their way from breeding grounds in the eastern USA to a small patch of forest in the mountains of central Mexico where they pass the winter.  They make use of a kind of sun-compass: butterfly

The homing skills of the pigeon are still a bit mysterious but it seems they involve a magnetic sense, coupled with a sun compass.  They can also hear low-frequency sounds – like those produced by the breaking of waves – and can use these to find their way.  And it now appears that salmon use the earth’s magnetism to find their way back to the rivers where they hatched:

The dung beetle is more of star-gazer.  Recent research shows that they use the orientation of the Milky Way to help them roll dung balls back to their nests by the shortest route:

And honey bees use polarised sunlight to find their way to and from their hives when out foraging.

Some migrating birds make use of Polaris and Harbour seals too can steer by the stars:

So we are certainly not the only celestial navigators!

Dodgy old maps!

I’ve just been in Rome where I was lucky enough to see some huge maps painted in the 1580s on the walls outside the offices of the Papal foreign office.  They form a kind of mural atlas covering all the known world – and quite a lot that was then unknown!  The Vatican diplomats of old could just pop out of their offices to check where a place was by looking at these amazing frescoes.  But I hope they didn’t rely on them too heavily.

These old maps reveal dramatically the state of geographical ignorance at that time:



The Pacific basin is almost a complete blank and most of what’s shown is either in the wrong place or just plain imaginary.

At the southern end of South America the Straits of Magellan are duly shown  – no big surprise since Magellan had sailed through them in 1520.  But where is Cape Horn?  Nowhere to be seen.  (It was only discovered by the Dutch in 1616.)  South America just keeps on going southwards, and Tierra del Fuego (or ‘Fuogo’) forms the northern end of  ‘Terra Incognita’ – the great unknown southern landmass.

There’s no sign of Australia or New Zealand either, and New Guinea floats right in the middle of the Pacific like a long pale slug.   Further north, Japan acts as a kind of bridge between Siberia and North America!

We shouldn’t be surprised.  It was only possible to start making accurate charts of the world’s oceans and to record the shapes of the continents when celestial navigation had at last reached maturity in the mid-18th century.  And that depended on the invention of the sextant and chronometer, and the brilliant work of astronomers and mathematicians from all over Europe.

Mapping the world properly was a laborious and dangerous process.  It depended on the heroic endeavours of the first great maritime surveyors: men like Bougainville, Cook, Bligh, La Pérouse, Vancouver, Flinders, King, Stokes and FitzRoy – to name but a few.   Some of them never made it home, and they all suffered huge privations.  Too few of them are remembered today.

But you can soon read their extraordinary stories in Sextant!