HISTORY IS FICKLE
Since the beginning of history, women have contributed an unbelievable amount of knowledge, discovery, and talent in every field resulting in the changing of technology, law, social development, and attitudes. Unfortunately, history is fickle, often immortalizing inconsequential events and minimizing some major events to the point where they are left out of history books and school curriculum. Let’s shine a light on some of the women whose names you might not know--but who also helped shape the future of our nation.
Hedy Lamarr - publicity still for 'Heavenly Body' (1944). MGM
Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedy_Lamarr
Most people of a given age recognize the name and photo of Hedy Lamarr, one of the most famous actresses among many other glamour girls who starred in films in the mid-twentieth century. Most people who recognize the name may also wonder why she’s featured as a lesser-known woman in history. She was a popular actress and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but that’s not exactly a mark on history.
But here she is. Let’s find out why.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria in 1914, daughter of a banker and a pianist. As a child she studied ballet and piano and attended a Swiss boarding school, but was always fascinated by films. In her teens she attended a well-known acting school in Berlin but dropped out to become production assistant for Max Reinhardt, a theater and film producer.
She had bit roles in several films [between two and four] until, at 18, she was cast as the lead in Gustav Machaty’s film Ecstasy which featured a number of nude scenes. She was disillusioned by the experience, but the film became wildly popular as well as controversial, and was banned in the United States. Her career was off and running. Instead, at barely 19, she married Fritz Mandl, an Austrian munitions manufacturer and Nazi supporter fifteen years her senior and, at his insistence, retired from the film business.
Lamarr accompanied Mandl to business meetings, where he conferred with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology and weapons. His company was engaged in researching weapon control systems and during these meeting there were discussions that foreshadowed World War II. These conferences were her introduction to the field of military weaponry and fed her latent talent in mathematics and applied science. Despite the lack of any formal training in math and science, she understood what she heard.
Fritz Mandl was very controlling, and Hedy soon realized her career in film was over if she staying in the marriage. After four years, her situation became intolerable. There are various stories of how she escaped, one being that she dressed as a maid, took all her jewelry, and fled to England. Her notoriety brought her in contact with Louis B. Mayer, who signed her reluctantly because of concerns over moral issues. He changed her name to Hedy Lamarr, and she made her American debut in the film Algiers in 1938. Publicity Photo for Heavenly Body 1944 - Public domain
Photo source: commons.wikimedia.org/Hedy_Lamarr
THE MOTHER OF “SPREAD SPECTRUM” AND ‘FREQUENCY HOPPING”
The glamorous movie star is not the person we’re celebrating. In her downtime, when not acting, Hedy Lamar was an inventor. Her trailer was full scientific equipment, funded by her many friends including J.F. Kennedy and Howard Hughs. Her inventions include an improved traffic stoplight and a tablet that dissolved in water to create a carbonated drink -- unsuccessful because the drink, Lamarr said, tasted like Alka-Seltzer – and a communications system that is still on the cutting edge of modern telecommunications technology.
A communications system that everyone around the world uses every day -- the precursor to cell phones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
Photo source: www.forbes.com/sites/shivaunefield/2018/
World War II broke out, and Lamarr had her own reasons to oppose it. She was a staunch supporter of the United States and its allies. Exactly when and how Lamarr got the idea for her “Secret Communications System”, is hard to determine, since there are several versions of the story. The important fact is that she realized transmitting radio signals along rapidly changing frequencies would make American radio-guided weapons undetectable. With the sequence of the frequencies known by the sender and receiver ahead of time, messages, if detected by the enemy, would be nonsense to them.
She approached George Anthiel, Hollywood pianist and composer, for help. Even thought asking composer for help sounds strange, in the 1920's Anthiel had been a front runner exploring mechanical music. He had composed the famous "Ballet Macanique" which called for mechanically synchronizing sixteen player pianos, xylophones and percussion. Together they developed a mechanism similar to player piano rolls to synchronize the changes between 88 frequencies. They submitted their patent on June 10, 1941, and it was granted on August 11, 1942.
Instead of marketing the idea, they turned it over to the US military as their contribution to the war effort. It was reviewed superficially by the US military and filed away as impractical. Hedy was told she could do more for the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds … which she did.
Physics History indicates frequency hopping was not an entirely new concept. Nikola Tesla alluded to the idea in 1900 and 1903 patents. A similar patent for a “secrecy communications system” was granted in 1920, with additional patents granted in 1939 and 1940 to two German engineers. Evidence came to light in the 1980s that during World War II, the US Army Signal Corps worked on a communication system that used the spread spectrum concept as well.
Photo Source: www.ebay.com/itm/HEDY-LAMARR-US-PATENT
It wasn’t until 1957 that engineers at Sylvania Electronic Systems Division adopted the concept, using the recently invented transistor for an electronic system. In 1959 it idea was developed for controlling drones that would later be used in Viet Nam. Frequency hopping radio became a Navy standard by 1960.
TOO LITTLE TO LATE
Hedy Lamarr was honored as an actress in 1960 by her star on the Walk of Fame, but it wasn’t until 1998 that her invention was nationally acclaimed. She and George Anthiel were awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation award, fifty years after they received their patent. [Antheil died in 1959]
▼ Hedy Lamarr’s star - Photo source: The Electronic Frontier Foundation Award Gallery of Icons, National Inventors Hall of Frame
projects.latimes.com/hollywood/hedy-lamarr/ http://www.writeopinions.com/eff-pioneer-award www.glassdoor.co.uk/National-Inventors-Hall-of-Fame
Due to the expiration of the patent decades before the modern wireless era and Lamarr’s unawareness of time limits for filing claims, neither she nor Antheil profited a penny from their endeavor although their invention is now worth billions of dollars.
Hedy Lamarr died, impoverished, in Florida in 2000. She spent her final years living on SAG and social security checks amounting to $300 per month.□