lecture: The woman behind your WiFi

Hedy Lamarr: Frequency Hopping in Hollywood

Secret communication system

Used in cell phone technology, bluetooth devices, and WiFi, Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) is often said to have been invented in the early 1940s by none other than Hollywood actress and sex symbol Hedy Lamarr. This talk will present the undeniably entertaining history of a well-known actress moonlighting as a military inventor as well as give an overview of the 100-year-old history of frequency hopping and its past and present uses.

Imagine no WiFi, no cell phones, no bluetooth. (Everything’s better with bluetooth!)
It is often said that we owe the convenience of all these modern technologies to Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr and her invention of Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) in the early 1940s. Do we?

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914, the daughter of an affluent Viennese family became famous at age 18 for starring naked and faking the first onscreen orgasm in history in the Czech-Austrian film “Ekstase” – fame which led to a successful Hollywood career after Hedwig Kiesler emigrated to the USA and renamed herself Hedy Lamarr. “The most beautiful woman in the world”, as director Max Reinhardt called her, starred in more than two dozen Hollywood movies over the course of twenty years, all the while being bored by the intellectual limitations her job offered. On the subject of what it takes to be a Hollywood sex symbol, she is quoted to have said “Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Lamarr had always been interested in science and technology and wanted to help the United States' war effort during World War II by doing more than just using her fame and physical beauty to sell war bonds and entertaining the troops at the Hollywood Canteen. In her spare time, she thought about torpedoes: powerful, yet hard to control weapons which might hit their targets more precisely when guided by radio signals. Lamarr knew that the problem with radio signals was that they could easily be jammed by the enemy – and with her co-inventor, pianist and composer George Antheil, she developed a “Secret Communication System” based on the idea of having radio signals hop around frequencies in a seemingly random pattern, making it thereby hard to impossible to interfere with them. A patent was granted to Lamarr and Antheil, but the United States Navy dismissed the technology, in part due to the fact that it had been proposed by an actress and a composer. Lamarr's idea of frequency hopping remained untouched until the 1960s, when the Navy first used it in a buoy signaling submarine locations to airplanes during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the following decades, the military and private companies developed numerous technologies around the idea of frequency hopping, which is found in most digital devices communicating wirelessly today, be it via bluetooth, WiFi, or in cell phones. Hedy Lamarr's legacy, though, remained that of a beautiful Hollywood actress and sex symbol until recently. Only in 2014 were she and Antheil inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Admittedly, Lamarr was not the first person to think of frequency hopping as a method for making radio signals harder to intercept and jam: none other than Nikola Tesla was granted a U.S. patent in 1903 which does not use the words “frequency hopping”, but describes changing wireless frequencies to avoid interception of radio communication. During World War I, the German army used a primitive way of frequency hopping to stop the British listening in to their radio communication. It may be an overstatement, therefore, to say that without Hedy Lamarr there would be no bluetooth, no WiFi, no cell phones today. But she did invent a unique way of doing frequency hopping, and many recent patents in frequency hopping spread spectrum technology refer to the Lamarr-Antheil patent as the basis of the field.

When it comes to Hedy Lamarr, although she resented not being credited for her scientific inventions for most of her life and instead being reduced to a beautiful face and body, she was after all a woman of her (sexist) time: during her later years, she desperately tried to save her looks through multiple plastic surgery, comically distorting her face to the point where she hardly left the house any more and could only be reached by phone. When, in 1997, her work was finally credited for the first time with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, 82-year-old Hedy sent a recorded message: “In acknowledgement of your honoring me, I hope you feel good as well as I feel good about it, and it was not done in vain. Thank you.”

Barton, Ruth. Hedy Lamarr: The most beautiful woman in film. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
Förster, Jochen, and Anthony Loder. Hedy Darling: das filmreife Leben der Hedy Lamarr. Hollenstedt: Ankerherz Verlag, 2012.
Lamarr, Hedy. Ecstasy and me: my life as a woman. New York: Bartholomew House, 1967.
Miessner, Benjamin Franklin. Radiodynamics: The wireless control of torpedoes and other mechanisms. London: Crosby, Lockwood & Son, 1917.
Rhodes, Richard. Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. New York: Doubleday, 2011.
Robbins, Trina. Hedy Lamarr and a secret communication system. Mankato, Minn.: Capstone Press, 2007. [graphic novel aimed at middle school students]
Shearer, Stephen Michael. Beautiful: The life of Hedy Lamarr. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2010.
Simons, Marvin K., et. al. Spread Spectrum Communications Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

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