Hedy Lamarr’s Most Important Role? Inventor.


MARCH 2019

By: Delia J. Smith

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed March 2-8 as National Women’s History Week. (Congress later passed a law declaring a month-long observance.) 

In explaining his decision, Carter stated that, while men and women worked together to build our nation, “too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed.”

Hedy Lamarr was neither unsung nor unnoticed. She was an actress from the 1930s and 1940s, starring with the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. 

However, Lamarr was unnoticed for the thing she valued most: her brain. She was an inventor, creating everything from a fluorescent dog collar to an improved traffic stoplight. She came up with design improvements to Howard Hughes’ airplanes, which he gratefully implemented. Internationally known for her beauty, she once remarked: “The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think.”

In 1941, newspapers began reporting about a “red-hot” Lamarr project with co-inventor (and musical composer) George Antheil. A year later, the two were granted a patent for a “Secret Communication System” that embodied a technique later known as frequency hopping. The invention was deemed so vital to national defense, the U.S. government didn’t allow its details to be published.

Fast forward to 1983. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers published a paper by engineer Robert Price, known for his research in spread spectrum technology. Referring to the Lamarr-Anthiel communication system, Price posits that “in the intervening decades from the issuance of its patent until now, whatever scant notice it has received has been confined to the popular press.”

Price was very, very wrong. At best, he was simply ignorant. At worst, he was being dismissive. Indeed, when interviewed by Forbes in 1990, Lamarr lamented, “I can’t understand…. why there’s no acknowledgment when it’s used all over the world.”

A decade-by-decade look at frequency hopping clearly shows Lamarr’s contributions may not have been publicly acknowledged but were vital to protecting our nation and its leaders.  

1950s   The Sonobuoy system, used by the U.S. government to locate submarines, relies on frequency hopping to securely transmit information to and from the airplane that controls and listens to the buoys. 

1960s   The U.S. Navy deploys a Sylvania BLADES system based on frequency hopping to secure communications during the Cuban missile blockade.

1970s   During the Vietnam War, frequency hopping secures a radio link between a drone and the airplane that controls it.

1980s   Qualcomm launches CDMA trials with technology it reports traces back to the Lamarr-Antheil patent.

1990s   Milstar launches a communications system that provides the President, Secretary of Defense and U.S. armed forces with “assured, survivable satellite communications with low probability of interception and detection.” The system relies on frequency hopping for anti-jamming.

2000s   The founder of Dispersive takes inspiration from frequency hopping to develop the split-session, multipath and rolling technologies fundamental to our programmable networking. 

Hedy Lamarr was probably pleased to receive her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. However, given what we know about her and the aforementioned list, she probably would have been much prouder of the honor she received posthumously in 2014: induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame

As her son Anthony Loder once recalled: “My mother had a very intellectually curious mind. She wanted to know how things worked.”

I’d consequently like to think Lamarr would be especially pleased by this particular value of ours:

Ask bigger questions. Through an insatiable curiosity and a willingness to inquire, we challenge convention to make the impossible happen.

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