Today in Tech History: Hedy Lamarr, Inventor of Spread-Spectrum Technology, Born in 1914

Johann Strauß II in Vienna's Stadtpark, the birthplace of Hedy Lamar

By Paul Riegler on 9 November 2015
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Chances are, you are reading this story on a mobile device, a smartphone, that uses a wireless network to send and receive data.

You have but one person to thank: Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr, born in Vienna on November 9, 1914 as Hedwig Maria Eva Kiesler, was much more than a pretty face, much more than a glamorous actress whose career partnered her with Spencer Tracy, Charles Boyer, Robert Young, James Stewart, and Victor Mature in the 1940s and 50s.

Lamarr was responsible, along with composer George Antheil, for developing the technology that continues, to this day, to serve as the foundation for today’s wireless networks.

Their project, for which a patent under the title “Secret Communication System” was filed in 1941, was the basis behind spread-spectrum communications technology including Wi-Fi networks, GSM, Bluetooth, and GPS.

Using her familiarity with torpedo systems –something she had gained while married to Friedrich Mandl, an Austrian arms merchant –and Antheil’s work with piano rolls, the two developed a frequency hopping spread spectrum technology that controlled a torpedo by moving through a sequence of 88 different frequencies, based on the 88 keys found on most modern pianos. The technology reduced the likelihood of detection or jamming for radio-controlled torpedoes.

At first, the Navy demurred, but adopted the technology during the Cuban Missile Crisis. By then, the pair’s patent had expired and Lamarr and Antheil’s estate (he died in 1959) did not receive any royalties for the use of their invention.

Lamarr was first recognized for her work in this area with the Communications Pioneer Freedom Foundation Award in 1998 and died two years later. She and Antheil were inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame in early 2015. Lamarr was also honored with an animated doodle on Google earlier this week.

Her other inventions included an improved traffic light and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated beverage.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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