Hedy Lamarr was many things, a virulent anti-fascist, a silver age movie starlet & beauty icon, and amongst other things, the inventor of Spread Spectrum Technology.
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“Any girl can be glamorous,” Hedy Lamarr once said. “All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” The film star belied her own apothegm by hiding a brilliant, inventive mind beneath her photogenic exterior. In 1942, at the height of her Hollywood career, she patented a frequency-switching system for torpedo guidance that was two decades ahead of its time.
She was born Hedwig Marie Eva Kiesler in Austria, 1913 to a pianist mother & successful banker father. She first diddled Hollywoods’s skittle in Gustav Machaty’s 1933 film Ecstasy. There was much outcry about the film, which depicted lamarr in a state of perpetual orgasm, not least from Lamarr’s then husband, Freidrich Mandel, rumoured to be the 3rd richest man in Austria, an arms dealer and a regular attendee of the 30’s burgeoning bourgeoisie fascist social set’s political soirees. In her auto biography Lamarr described Mandl as an extremely controlling man who prevented her from pursuing her acting career and kept her a virtual prisoner, confined to their castle home, “Schloss Schwarzenau,”However it was this unlikely union which sowed the seeds for Lamarr’s scientific endeavours. Mandl often took Lamarr to scientific functions, exhibitions and talking shops, an environment in which much to his dismay, she thrived. As with all mysterious and intelligent woman, her escape from the over bearing Mandl is steeped in melodrama, rumour and conjecture.
One story suggests that in 1937,disguised as a handmaiden, Lamarr fled to Paris & acquired a liberal lawyer to grant her a divorce before exiling herself to London, another story indicates that purposefully arraying herself in her most valuable jewellery, she drugged Mandl at a party with the assistance of a maid, then fled the country with the jewellery as her portable financial asset. I must say, I enjoy the second story better. Lamarr met Film producer Louis B. Mayer during this spell in London and was thrust into the limelight, appearing in no less than 18 films for MGM in the next decade. Not one for the party scene Lamarr had other things on her mind during this period. Lamarr met avant garde composer George Antheil, whilst living next door to him, and first approached with a question about glands, in a bid to find a way to make her breasts bigger (yes even clever woman in the past had these issues) and fascinated by his experiments with automated control of musical instruments, she shared her idea of a Secret Communication System with him, no doubt in part inspired by her exile from both the fascist bourgeoisie of Europe, and the escalating rise of Fascism in Germany, led by one of her countrymen.
They began talking about radio control for torpedoes. The idea itself was not new, but her concept of “frequency hopping” was. Lamarr brought up the idea of radio control. Antheil’s contribution was to suggest the device by which synchronization could be achieved. He proposed that rapid changes in radio frequencies could be coordinated the way he had coordinated the sixteen synchronized player pianos in his Ballet Meanique. The analogy was complete in his mind: By the time the two applied for a patent on a “Secret Communication System,” on June 10, 1941, the invention used slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls to synchronize the frequency changes in transmitter and receiver, and it even called for exactly eighty-eight frequencies, the number of keys on a piano.
Together they submitted the idea of a secret communication system in June 1941. On August 11, 1942 a patent was granted was granted to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey”. Although a presentation of the frequency hopping technique was made U.S. Navy, it was met with opposition and was not adopted.Eventually the idea was implemented by the US military during the infamous Cuban blockade, but only after its patent had expired.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr an award for this contribution. It is reported that, in 1998, Ottawa wireless technology developer Wi-LAN, Inc. “acquired a 49 per cent claim to the patent from Lamarr for an undisclosed amount of stock” although expired patents have no economic value. Antheil had died in 1959.Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency-hopping idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth, COFDM used in Wi-Fi network connections, and CDMA used in some cordless and wireless telephones. Blackwell, Martin, and Vernam’s 1920 patent Secrecy Communication System seems to lay the communications groundwork for Kiesler and Antheil’s patent, which employed the techniques in the autonomous control of torpedoes.Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council, but was reportedly told by NIC member Charles F. Kettering and others that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds. And of course, women shouldn’t be joining male only cleverclubs now should they?
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.”
Hedy Lamarr died of natural causes in January of 2000, aged 86. She is survived by three children.
Information Source: American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Spring 1997, Volume 12/Number 4