Hedey Lamarr and Wireless Technology

From Blazing Saddles…

Governor William J. Le Petomane: Thank you, Hedy, thank you 
Hedley Lamarr: It’s not Hedy, it’s Hedley. Hedley Lamarr. 
Governor Le Petomane: What the Hell are you worried about? This is 1874. You’ll be able to sue her.

That’s forever who Hedy Lamar was going to be for me, and if you’re a bit older, the first actor to portray the exuberance of an orgasm – onscreen. Sorry, Meg Ryan. That’s until it emerged in recent years that the iconic actress invented something called frequency jumping, which bears no relation to the hot spot the sultry Austrian sealed above with a cigarette in 1933 and hopefully just jostled the attention of everyone out there that is disconnecting from the real world with WiFi.

Always having an interest in science, Lamarr paid close attention to the conversations between Nazi generals and her arms dealing husband, who was one of the richest men in Austria. Among the discussions in the prewar period was the problem of signal jamming, and the ease at which torpedoes could be knocked off course with intervening radio signals.

Regardless, as she was thoroughly unhappy with her controlling husband and his opportunistic leanings, Lamarr jettisoned the half Jewish industrialist for emigration to Hollywood, and as the war approached, she began to give further thought to the problem of guided torpedoes.

Her brainstorm had long been to vary the frequency of the transmitted radio signal by switching the channels randomly. This would prevent the enemy from jamming because they would be at a loss to know which band to disrupt.

The idea crystallized when she met avant-garde musician George Antheil. Putting their heads together, the duo arrived at using a piano roll to unpredictably change the signal between a control center and the torpedo. They proposed using short bursts within a range of 88 frequencies, which is the number of keys on a piano. Utilizing a piano playing mechanism Antheil had previously developed, it would have been in all practicality impossible to unscramble the array and divert the projectile.

For real and they were awarded patent number 2,292,387. Swept up in the times, Lamarr and Antheil proceeded to turn the patent over to the navy – free of charge. Maybe the price too steep, the innovation remained submerged to the military’s lack of vision and played no part in the war effort.

Frequency Jumping thus remained dormant through the 50’s until scientists realized there were applications beyond torpedo guidance. Morphing into something known as spread spectrum, it was learned that signals came through clearer and more efficiently if transmitted across multiple frequencies. For us today, that means cell phone calls don’ fall prey to the crisscrossing of wireless conversations.

Not living to see how her contribution paved the way for Bluetooth technology and Wifi internet, Lamarr certainly made the connection to mobile phones by the time of her death in 2000. Nonetheless, she never sued for a cent – save for the $10 million dollar suit she brought against Mel Brooks in 1974.

They settled out of court. 

Photo by Rich Monetti

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