Movie star invented technology that led to WiFi

A beautiful face, a beautiful mind. But it was the beautiful face that most people will remember her by. Even though she was also smart.

Hedy Lamarr (9 November 1914 – 19 January 2000) was born in Austria at a time when women were not intellectually encouraged or acknowledged for being anything other than wives and mothers.

She had a relatively successful acting career, which was not without its controversies. But she was also an inventor, and had a special room in her house kitted out for this. Together with composer, George Antheil,  frequency hopping was invented.

Frequency hopping is the basis of spread spectrum communications technologies such as Bluetooth, WiFi and CDMA. “It is a key component in wireless data systems.” (†)

They discussed the fact that torpedoes could easily be intercepted by the enemy through frequency jamming. They figured out that a piano roll could change the signal between the torpedo and its control centre (e.g. a ship). These “hops” would be synchronised between the torpedo and the ship “at short bursts within a range of 88 frequencies in the radio-frequency spectrum (there are 88 black and white keys on a piano keyboard). The specific code for the sequence of frequencies would be held identically by the controlling ship and in the torpedo. It would be practically impossible for the enemy to scan and jam all 88 frequencies, as this would require too much power or complexity.” (†)

The US navy was not interested in this technology during WW2. They eventually used this technique much later during the Cuban blockade and after the patent had expired.

During WW2 she wanted to join the National Inventors Council but they recommended that she use her celebrity status to help the war effort.

Finally, at the 1997 Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Sixth Pioneer Awards she and George Antheil were honoured for their achievement.

She made no money from this invention and many of us who daily use WiFi technologies are not even aware that this was made possible by movie star, Hedy Lamarr.


Note: The idea for this post was from a snippet published in Elekor Magazine’s weekly newsletter.