Hedy Lamarr – Inventor of radio frequency-hopping technology
Hedy Lamarr was considered one of the most beautiful actresses of the 1930s and 1940s. She was also an inventor, decades ahead of her time, in the field of radio communication. In 1941, hoping to help the Allies defeat the Nazis in World War II, she and a partner patented a frequency hopping technology that allowed torpedoes to be guided by radio signals that were impossible to intercept. Long after her patent expired, Lamarr’s invention proved to be the basis of “spread spectrum” technology, which opened the doors to modern wireless communications technology, includ ing the cell phone.
Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, on November 9, 1914. She grew up in an upper-class, well-to-do Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. Her father was a bank director and her mother, a pianist. She was tutored from an early age, and she could play the piano, dance, sing, and speak four languages by the time she was a young teenager.
In 1930, the 16-year-old Kiesler enrolled in a drama school in Berlin, Germany, run by the famous director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). That year, she made her debut in the German film Geld auf der Strasse (Money on the Street). However, she is most famous for her role in the 1932 Czech film Extase (Ecstasy), which featured her in the first nude scene in film history. She was just 18 years old at the time, and the film brought her international fame.
The film also brought her to the attention of Friedrich Mandl, a powerful Austrian arms manufacturer 15 years her senior. The two mar ried in 1933. Mandl put an end to his wife’s burgeoning acting career, and he kept her by his side as he met with and entertained some of the most powerful leaders in Europe, including Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, as well as a host of arms dealers, manufacturers, and buyers. She listened closely and learned a great deal about the latest technolo gy behind arms and muni tions. Later, she would use this knowledge to invent a tool she hoped would destroy Nazism.
In 1937, after four years of marriage, she left Mandl and fled to Paris, and then London. There, she was dis covered by the film mogul Louis B. Mayer. Mayer gave her a new name-Hedy Lamarr and brought her to Hollywood.
Lamarr made her first English-language film, Algiers, in 1938, and quickly estab lished herself as a powerful screen presence, though she was celebrated more for her beauty than for her acting abilities. Over the next decades, she starred in more than a dozen films, including Boom Town (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Tortilla Flat (1942), and, in one of her most famous roles, Samson and Delilah (1949).
THE RIGHT FREQUENCY
Lamarr’s breakthrough as an inventor came just as she attained star sta tus in Hollywood. At the time, war was raging in Europe. The Nazis had stormed through the Netherlands and Belgium and into France, and were now threatening Great Britain. A fierce opponent of Nazism, Lamarr felt that she had to do something, and she had an idea.
From her days entertaining arms manufacturers alongside her former husband, Lamarr was aware of certain difficulties with torpedoes.
Without a guidance system, torpedoes were highly inaccurate. Radio-based guidance systems had their own problem
the radio frequencies were easily intercepted and jammed. She believed that rapidly hopping from frequency to fre quency according to a predetermined synchronized pattern might permit torpedoes to avoid jamming or interception.
In 1940, Lamarr had become friends with George Antheil, a composer known for his elaborate, avant-garde musical scores. When she described her idea of “frequency
hopping” to him, Antheil was intrigued, and he helped her with the technical details of the device. He believed that Lamarr’s invention could be controlled in the same way that player pianos were controlled with a paper roll dictating the changing radio fre quencies. They spent months merging the crucial mechanisms behind radio transmission and player pianos. That December, Lamarr and Antheil sent a description of their device to the National Inventors Council (NIC). The head of the NIC saw the enormous potential of their invention and encouraged them to patent it.
After addressing some of the more difficult technical elements with the aid of an engineering profes sor, Lamar and Antheil applied for a patent for what they called a “Secret Communication System” on June 10, 1941. In the application, they described how identical paper rolls would be used to synchronize the fre quencies in the radio transmitter and the receiver inside the tor pedo. The patent called for 88 frequencies–the number of keys on a piano.
The U.S. Patent Office granted Lamarr and Antheil U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 on August 11, 1942. (Lamarr had been briefly married to screenwriter Gene Markey from 1939 to 1941, and she used the name Hedy Kiesler Markey on the patent application.) Shortly after, they turned their invention over to the U.S. military. However, even though World War II continued, the mil itary did not capitalize on Lamarr’s idea. Some people say it was because the invention was too far ahead of its time; others suggest that the military was hesitant to put its efforts behind “flying player pianos.”
AT LONG LAST
Lamarr and Antheil’s device languished, unused, for more than a decade. In 1957, engineers working for Sylvania Electronics “rediscovered” Lamarr’s frequency-hopping concept and altered the technology to utilize electronic signals instead of paper rolls. Soon, the U.S. Navy began to use frequency hopping—what it called “spread spectrum”-technology to keep military communication channels secure. A type of spread spectrum technology was used during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. By then, however, Lamarr and Antheil’s patent had expired.
About 35 years passed before Lamarr received credit for her contribu tions (Antheil died in 1959). In that time, spread spectrum technology was introduced to the public and quickly transformed modern communications, opening the door for wireless networks and cell phones. In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer award for their work. The next year, Lamarr received the Viktor Kaplan Medal of the Austrian Association of Patent Holders and Inventors—the highest award given to inventors in her homeland.
In the end, Lamarr earned no money from her patent and only much belated recognition for her contribution to the field of military communications. In 1999, however, Wi-LAN, a Canadian wireless communications business, bought a 49 percent interest in Lamarr’s original patent rights. Well into her 80s, she was finally being compensated for her work. Her response to the press was, “It’s about time.”
Lamarr died alone in her home in Florida on January 19, 2000. In the days before her death, she was reportedly drawing up plans for new traffic lights.