My first exposure to Hedy Lamarr was, unfortunately, as a running gag in the classic Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles.

Not you

As a woman in the world of science and engineering, I wish that growing up I had known more about Hedy Lamarr and her accomplishments beyond the silver screen.  Not only was Hedy a talented actress, but she was a self-taught “tinkerer”, two things I had wanted to be when I grew up.  Unfortunately, most of the world still recognizes Hedy Lamarr for her acting career and has no idea that she was the inventor of some of the basic technology behind the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi we use every day.

The role models I did have. Though maybe I just wanted goggles

In the interest of full disclosure, most of the following information is condensed from the Wikipedia articles on Hedy Lamarr and frequency-hopping spread spectrum.  For a deeper read, I suggest you head to the source material here and here.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (Hedy Lamarr), lived from November 9, 1914 – January 19, 2000 and was an Austrian-born American film actress and inventor of frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) technology.  While her film career is quite remarkable, this blog post is going to focus on her tinkerer side.  Hedy’s first husband was a wealthy Austrian ammunition manufacturer, from whom she fled to Paris before eventually finding her way to the United States and a film career with MGM.  This is important to know; it was partially because of this early exposure to the manufacturing of munitions that led her to develop FHSS.

By MGM / Clarence Bull - eBay item 262147225708 - archive copy at the Wayback Machine (archived on 18 November 2015), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45092010

Publicity Photo of Hedy from 1940

Hedy Lamarr was largely self-taught, and tinkered in many various technologies such as an improved traffic signal system and a rather poorly received fizzy drink tablet.  However, it is the frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology that became Lamarr’s most significant invention, something she co-created with composer and pianist George Antheil.  It was around 1940 during World War II that Hedy became concerned that her work as an actress was not contributing to the war effort.  Drawing on her knowledge of the new radio-controlled torpedo technology gained from her first husband’s work, Lamarr began to search for a remedy to the problem of radio-controlled torpedo signals being jammed by Nazi submarines.  Hedy identified a solution, recognizing that if the radio-control signal frequency changed throughout the course of operation, the Nazi jammers would not be able to keep up with the rapidly changing signal and respond with a jamming signal.

This post has gotten too serious, so here’s how I’m picturing the Nazis trying to keep up

Hedy Lamarr worked with her friend, pianist George Antheil, who was able to demonstrate the concept by synchronizing a miniaturized player-piano mechanism with radio signals.  Lamarr and Antheil received U.S. Patent 2,292,387 for their “Secret Communications System” in 1942, which used a piano-roll to hop among 88 frequencies to prevent enemy jamming of radio-guided torpedoes.

Pictured: Piano being used for jamming

As a side note, naturalized citizen Hedy Lamarr felt such a strong patriotic duty that she considered ending her successful acting career to join the National Inventors Council and devote herself to further developing wartime technologies for the United States military.  However, Dayton native and NIC member Charles Kettering, suggested that Lamarr’s efforts were better spent using her celebrity status to sell war bonds.

While the U.S. Navy did investigate Lamarr and Antheil’s FHSS technology, unfortunately they were unable to make it into a practical wartime device at the time.  Decades later, however, this technology became the basis for modern bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies.

So what is a maker to take away from all of this?  Here’s what stands out to me:

  1. You don’t have to be a trained engineer to make a significant contribution to the development of technology, you just have to be motivated and willing to use what you know and learn what you don’t.
  2. It takes all kinds of skills to make something new.  When Hedy realized she was dealing with frequency modulation, she turned to someone she knew had to understand frequencies – her musician friend Antheil.
  3. Often makers work behind the scenes and “maker” isn’t in their job title.  Actresses, musicians, really anyone you meet may be the maker that will invent the next big thing!
  4. (Also, not putting Hedy Lamarr on the National Inventors Council was probably one time Charles Kettering was wrong, just saying…)

So next time you watch Blazing Saddles, remember the real Hedy Lamarr!

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