Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hedy Lamarr Invented Wifi

The story is strange, and not particularly credible on the face of it.. but as it so happens, true. Sometimes unexpectedly someone we know for abilities in one arena works furtively in another. Proficiency in multiple disciplines was the foundation of being a Renaissance man, an idea sort of lost in our modern pre-fab world where most people don't know how to much of anything. but Hedy Lamarr comes from a different era entirely. She was and is famous as an actress of the 1930s and 40s. On the side she was an inventor and a surprisingly capable one.

Hedy Lamarr was born in 1913 as Hedwig Kiesler. She was raised in Vienna her father was a banker, her mother a pianist.Her father was said to have given her an interest in technology. She invented scores of inconsequential wonks: a cola-flavor tablet similar to Fizzies, an attachment to tissue boxes to hold used tissue, and then the  not-so-wonky  US Patent 2,292,387. More here and here.

Back in 1933, Ms. Lamarr was married to Fritz Mandal, the first of her six husbands. Mr. Mandal worked in the manufacture of military aircraft in Austria. Lamarr clearly learned a few things before they divorced in 1937. By 1940 she was married to Gene Markey, and met  George Antheil at a party. Antheil had previously experimented with automated control of musical instruments and was a successful composer. She bounced her latest idea off him, radio control for torpedoes that employed frequency hopping to avoid detection and jamming. After consulting with an electrical-engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology,they filed a patent for a "Secret Communication System", on June 10, 1941. Radio control was not new, Tesla had invented that more than to decades earlier. But frequency hopping, that was a completely new idea. 

Their system used a synchronized punched rolls of paper, like piano rolls to scan across a set of 88 frequencies. Note that there are 88 keys on a piano so the design stayed solidly within Antheil's experience automating player pianos. The Navy scoffed, but eventually tried out the idea in 1962 during a blockade of Cuba.It was a few decades late for her dreams of foiling the Nazis. Other groups were equally dismissive usually recommending she just go out and raise money for war bonds. It probably didn't help that she wasn't yet a naturalized citizen, but some of it was certainly sexism as well.

I've read the patent. It would probably even sort of work, but it's reliance on a Rube Goldberg mechanical timing would likely lose synch in a moving torpedo. But in the U.S. we patent not just devices but also ideas. Lamarr called her idea "frequency hopping" a term we still use today. It was the forerunner of the spread-spectrum technology used in Wi-Fi, CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology in cell phones, cordless phones and of course... certain secret communication systems. Antheil died in 1959 and never saw his work used, but Hedy certainly did. One can only hope she felt vindicated... even if the patents had expired.

Lamarr continued her film career and retreated from public life in the 1980s and retired in Miami Beach, FL. Clearly growing eccentric, she was arrested in 1991 for shoplifting laxatives. She died in January of 2000 at the age of 86.