All creative people want to do the unexpected. – Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-born actress who was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world and a sex symbol in early Hollywood. She appeared in her first film “Ecstasy” at age 18 in Germany. The film was notorious for scenes showing her face in the throes of an orgasm and also brief nude scenes. For 1933 it was shocking. She later recounted the authenticity of her “passion” was attained by the film director’s off-screen manipulation of a safety pin poking her bottom. With WWII looming she came to the U.S. and became a naturalized citizen. She starred in numerous popular films including Algiers, I Take This Woman and Samson and Delilah opposite leading men of the day such as Spenser Tracy, Charles Boyer, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.
But not many of her adoring fans realized that she was also a pioneer in the field of wireless communications. The international beauty icon, along with co-inventor George Anthiel, a composer and neighbor of Lamarr’s, developed a “Secret Communications System” to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.
Lamarr and Anthiel received a patent in 1941, but the enormous significance of their invention was not realized until decades later. It was first implemented on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and subsequently emerged in numerous military applications. But most importantly, the “spread spectrum” technology that Lamarr helped to invent would galvanize the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations possible.
Lamarr had a room in her home dedicated to drafting her designs for frequency hopping. She and Antheil realized that radio-controlled torpedoes were important in naval warfare, but they could easily be jammed by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control signal, causing the torpedo to go off course. She and Antheil developed the idea of using frequency hopping to avoid jamming. This was achieved by using a piano roll to unpredictably change the signal sent between a control tower and a range of 88 frequencies in the radio frequency spectrum (there are 88 black and white keys on a piano keyboard). Using this technology it would be practically impossible for the enemy to scan and jam all 88 frequencies. The frequency hopping sequence was controlled by a player piano device. On August 11, 1942, Lamarr and Antheil were granted a U.S. patent. While the technology was sound it was not implemented in the U.S. until 1962 after the patent had expired.
As is the case with many of the famous women inventors, Lamarr received very little recognition of her innovative talent at the time, but recently she has been showered with praise for her groundbreaking invention. In 1997, she and George Anthiel were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. And later in the same year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed “The Oscar™ of Inventing.” In 1998, an Ottawa wireless technology developer, Wi-LAN, Inc., acquired a 49% claim to the patent from Lamarr.
Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency hopping idea is the basis for modern spread spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi networks, and wireless and cordless phones. So when you next use your cellphone and Bluetooth, take a moment to thank this woman who should have been famous for her mind as well as her body. Proving she was much more than just another pretty face, Lamarr shattered stereotypes and earned a place among the 20th century’s most important women inventors. She truly was a visionary whose technological acumen was far ahead of its time.