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Friday, August 11, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Hedy Lamarr and the Invention of Wi-Fi

An actual postcard for "Postcard Thursday"! (OK, so it's Friday, but one step at a time.)

The home above belonged to the woman in the inset, actor Hedy Lamarr, star of such films as Ziegfeld Girl, Tortilla Flat, and Samson and Delilah, the highest-grossing film of 1949.

But on August 11, 1942 -- 75 years ago today -- Lamarr's most lasting contribution to the world happened with little fanfare: she was awarded a patent for a frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication system. The system, which she invented with composer George Antheil, was not the first to use random sequences to create a covert communications system, but the method patented by Lamarr and Antheil was later adopted by the US Navy and became the basis for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies.

There's a brief article at CultureLab that's worth reading in full about Lamarr's contributions to science, but here's a brief excerpt:
The invention was not her first. Lamarr previously experimented with cola-flavoured bouillon cubes for homemade soft drinks. But her new idea, which officials would only say was "related to remote control of apparatus employed in warfare", would become a signal innovation of the century, the technology now underlying cellphones and Wi-Fi. Expertly explaining the genesis and consequences of Lamarr's invention, in Hedy's Folly, Richard Rhodes transforms a surprising historical anecdote into a fascinating story about the unpredictable development of novel technologies. 
When Lamarr turned her attention to national defence, following the tragic sinking of a ship full of refugees by a German U-boat in 1940, she knew far more about armaments than most movie stars. Before arriving in Hollywood, she had been married to the Austrian munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, who supplied the Axis powers. Dining with Nazi generals, Lamarr not only learned about the latest submarines and missiles but also the problems with them: notably the challenge of guiding a torpedo by radio, and shielding the signal from enemy interference. 
Her insight was that you could protect wireless communication from jamming by varying the frequency at which radio signals were transmitted: if the channel was switched unpredictably, the enemy wouldn't know which bands to block. But her ingenious "frequency-hopping" idea was just a hunch until Lamarr met fellow amateur inventor George Antheil at a Hollywood dinner.

Notorious in the music world for avant-garde compositions featuring airplane propellers and synchronised player pianos, prior to the war, Antheil had galvanised Paris, and incited riots, with his cacophonous Ballet Mécanique. He had also attempted to invent an open-top pianola with which to teach basic keyboard technique. It flopped, but this background came in handy. To realise Lamarr's idea, Antheil proposed coordinating transmitter and receiver by controlling the switching between channels with two identical piano rolls running at the same speed.
Lamarr died in 2000, but not before being recognized in 1997 with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award for her contributions to modern technology. In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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