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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr – Hollywood Actress, Inventor

Star of silver screen during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1942, she invented an electronic guidance system called "frequency hopping", which helped make cell phones and other wireless technology possible

If you are a serious movie buff of old Hollywood films, you are sure to remember this actress. But what many people may not realize is that Hedy Lamarr is today becoming more known for her technological invention of more than 70 years ago than for her movies. This math-based creation (which she co-developed with American composer George Anheil in 1942) later paved the way for Smartphones and other wireless technology, and was born from her desire to help the U.S. Navy thwart Nazi submarine attacks during World War II. The invention was also used in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria-Hungary in 1914 of Jewish parents-- her mother was a pianist and her father, a successful bank director. (Her father died before the Holocaust, and later Hedy, through her influence as an actress, was able to rescue her mother from this plight.)

In the late 1920's, Hedy was discovered as an actress and brought to Berlin by producer Max Reinhardt. Following her training in the theater, she returned to Vienna where she began to work in the film industry, first as a script girl, and soon as an actress. In 1933 she married Max Mandl, a wealthy Austrian military arms merchant. Hedy would often accompany him to business meetings where he conferred with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. These conferences became her introduction to the field of applied science and the ground that nurtured her latent talent in the scientific field.

As World War II loomed, Hedy's acting career took her to Hollywood where she soon became a naturalized U.S. citizen. At the beginning of the war, she was told that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds, which she did with great success. But she wanted to do more, particularly by using her interest in science to aid in the defeat of Nazism.

This desire only intensified as Hitler continued his relentless attacks on Europe. When German submarines began torpedoing passenger liners, she said at one point, 'I've got to invent something that will put a stop to that." This desire would give rise to the invention for which she would become famous many years later.

Why She's Important: In her attempt to come up with an electronics radio system that would enable torpedoes from American and other Allied submarine forces to be launched more successfully without having their torpedo signals jammed by the enemy, she developed "frequency hopping" -- a technology which would later help make cell phones, Wi-Fi and other wireless developments possible.

Her idea involved making a radio signal "hop around from radio frequency to radio frequency" to interfere with signal jamming. Thus, a torpedo could be radio-guided with less fear of having the signal jammed.

To transform her idea into reality she teamed up with the American avant-garde composer George Antheil of "ballet mécanique" fame, and together they constructed a device that would enable such radio signals to be synchronized. Antheil laid out a system based on 88 frequencies, corresponding to the number of keys on a piano, using perforated paper rolls which would turn in sync with one another, transmitting and receiving ever-changing frequencies, preventing interceptance and jamming. Calling their invention the "Secret Communication System", the creation was patented in 1942.

Though the U.S. government did not deploy the "secret communication system" during World War II, the US Navy commissioned a project to acoustically detect submarines using sonar buoys remote-controlled from airplanes employing "frequency hopping" in the 1950s.

Twenty years after its conceptualization, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the first instance of large-scale military deployment of Hedy's and Antheil's frequency hopping technology was implemented-- not for the remote-controlled guidance of torpedoes, but to provide secure communications among the ships involved in the naval blockade.
1980s, Lamarr and Antheil's invention took on new significance. Instead of "frequency hopping," today's term is "spread spectrum" but the basic idea is the same. The FCC has allotted a special section of the radio spectrum for the development of Wi-Fi network connections, and for use in cell phones and other wireless devices to make communication more secure.

Other Achievements: For her invention, Hedy was honored in 1997 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In addition, her technological contributions have been featured on the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel.