As it’s Mother’s Day here in Costa Rica, we thought we’d share this article on wireless visionary and mother of three, Hedy Lamarr: a former actress and an extraordinary pioneer in spread-spectrum technology, who’s incredible efforts has shaped the world today as we know it.
Born on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Lamarr had an early and brief stint as an actress in Czechoslovakia. After the release of a controversial film in 1933, she fled from her wealthy Austrian husband and secretly moved to Paris, France. It was here where she met head of MGM Louis B. Mayer, who offered her a movie contract in Hollywood, where she became a successful film star from the late 1930’s to the 1950’s.
Though Lamarr had no formal training and was primarily self taught, she enjoyed using her spare time to work on her hobbies and inventions. During World War II, Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes could be easily jammed and forced to go off course. With help from her friend, composer and pianist George Antheil, the two developed the technology to help the Navy remotely control torpedoes. They suggested a radio guidance system that used spread spectrum and frequency hopping. In other words, by using randomized channel switching, it made it difficult for outside agents to understand what was being communicated, thus the torpedoes were less likely to be jammed.
The two received a patent for their idea on August 11, 1942, however, despite lobbying and fundraising efforts, the Navy ultimately passed on the technology. It wasn’t reborn again until the late 1950s when engineers at Sylvania Electronic Systems Division revived it, which led to the use of Lamarr’s frequency hopping concept in secure military communications. Over the years, Lamarr’s work on spread-spectrum has played a significant part in many modern wireless technologies, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA).
Though she was barely recognized for her work at the time, she did receive a special award: the Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997. This long overdue award sadly came only three years prior to her death in 2000. However, thanks to her incredible contributions in spread-spectrum technology, many of us can enjoy the wireless technology that we all take for granted today.