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Hedy Lamarr’s Invention Finally Comes of Age

Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu

The obituaries for movie actress Hedy Lamarr, who died at her home in Florida on Jan. 19 at age 86, all mentioned the fact that she co-invented an important technology for radio communications called “frequency hopping.” But none of the obituaries described the significance of her invention for current and emerging technologies, or the fact that her intellectual breakthrough will fuel the next great boom in Internet use.

What was called “frequency hopping” in the 1940s, when Lamarr and her friend George Antheil developed the idea, is now generally called “spread spectrum” wireless communication. Looking around my house, I can see that it’s rapidly filling up with spread spectrum devices dependent on Lamarr’s and Antheil’s innovation.

There are my cordless and wireless phones, for example. Just about every digital wireless phone uses a version of spread spectrum techniques. For Christmas I got a hand-held global positioning satellite device, a little box that tells me exactly where I am; GPS uses spread spectrum too.

I expect to be using a lot more spread spectrum tools in the future. Dale Hatfield, director of the Office of Engineering and Technology of the Federal Communications Commission, told me last week, “Spread spectrum appears to be the technology of choice for the next generation of mobile data devices.” As everyone knows by now, wireless is where everything related to the Internet is headed.

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If Lamarr had been able to retain her patent rights, she would possibly have become the richest person of all time. But she struggled with finances for most of her later years--she was even arrested for shoplifting twice. Her story highlights the weird tragedies of the patent system when an inventor develops an idea decades ahead of its time.

The tale of Lamarr’s technical contributions is familiar to many engineers, but largely unknown among the general public. It’s possibly the oddest and most ironic story in recent technological history.

Hedy Lamarr was born as Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1913, and she was famous before she left her teens because of a scandalous nude scene in her first movie, the Czech film “Ecstasy,” released in 1932. She married a wealthy Austrian industrialist, Fritz Mandl, when she was 19. Mandl was so jealous of her beauty that he tried to prevent her from leaving the house, which meant that Hedy sat through many dinner conversations and some technical meetings where she apparently absorbed a remarkably advanced education in radio technology.

Lamarr eventually escaped this loveless marriage and made her way to London, where she was discovered by Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. Mayer brought her to Hollywood, installed her in his stable of studio actors and billed her as “the most beautiful woman in movies.”

Lamarr met George Antheil at a Hollywood party. He was an equally unlikely candidate for technical innovation--he was a pioneer in avant-garde music in the 1930s, and his specialty was composing mechanistic pieces for player pianos.

Lamarr explained her ideas to Antheil about developing a method for communications that could not be intercepted or jammed, by “hopping” radio signals over different frequencies. Antheil provided the mechanical means to do this by using his knowledge of player pianos. Their invention used a paper tape, like player piano rolls, to synchronize radio communications that would jump from one frequency to another. They shared the patent for this device in 1942.

Lamarr’s and Antheil’s invention was not used by the military until 1962, when it helped secure communications between ships involved in the Cuban missile crisis. By then, their patent had expired. Patents last only 17 years. Even though Lamarr’s work became crucial to military communications through the most intense period of the Cold War--eventually embedded in the country’s entire nuclear command and control system--she never made any money from her technical work, nor did Antheil.

Throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, spread spectrum technologies were highly classified and available only for military applications.

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But in 1985, the Federal Communications Commission began to relax its rules, and spread spectrum was opened for commercial development. The first applications were for commercial satellite services, but the technology quickly became the bedrock for mobile telephones. Qualcomm, for example, the booming San Diego-based mobile telephone company, was built on spread spectrum applications.

In recent years the FCC has released segments of the radio bandwidth for unlicensed radio communication, and this bandwidth is being used by spread spectrum applications. Spread spectrum radio communication has the advantages of getting more digital bits into a segment of radio bandwidth, of reducing device interference, and increasing security. Without this innovation, wireless phone users would be talking to and hearing each other without wanting to, or else the number of phone users in a given area would be very limited. Think about all the cell phones in Los Angeles, and thank Hedy Lamarr.

There is a handy match between the way spread spectrum works and the way the Internet works, because Internet data packets can be “hopped” over many frequencies and reassembled at their destination, providing very fast data transmission rates. Cisco Systems, the giant Internet routing company, already offers a fixed wireless, point-to-point spread spectrum network connection at 45 million bits per second.

The real promise of spread spectrum technologies is in rural areas, neighborhoods, schools and Third World countries, where relatively inexpensive wireless devices can substitute for expensive ground wire networks.

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Wireless Internet activist Dave Hughes of Colorado Springs, Colo., has used spread spectrum networks to connect people in the jungles of Puerto Rico, in the remote woods of Wisconsin and Montana, and in the plains of Mongolia. A presentation Hughes gave in Austin, Texas, in 1998 led to a change in the state’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, the country’s largest public fund for wiring communities. Now rural Texas towns can apply for grants to network their communities with spread spectrum wireless devices.

Hughes successfully lobbied for Hedy Lamarr to be honored with a special “Pioneer Award” from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997.

Lamarr also reportedly took some comfort in her knowledge that she had produced an idea of great use to people all over the world. She did live long enough to understand the impact of her invention. As Dale Hatfield said, her invention was a “fundamental breakthrough.”

Hedy Lamarr once said, with some ironic bitterness, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” She was glamorous, all right, but she was anything but stupid.

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