In part 2 of our important people in cyber series, we take a look at the Hollywood Starlet who invented the technology that paved the way for modern Wi-Fi, Hedy Lamar.
Born November 9th 1914, to an affluent Austrian family, Hedwig (Hedy) Eva Maria Kiesler had an interest in acting at an early age. By the 1920s she was working in the film industry and had moved to Berlin. In 1933, she starred in the movie that would make her internationally famous, Ecstasy, a movie deemed too sexual outside of Europe.
She met her first husband, the Austrian arms merchant Friedrich Mandil and against her parents’ wishes married him at the age of 18 in 1933. Mandil had close ties to the Italian and German governments and Hedy would regularly attend her husband’s business meetings and conferences on military technology. It was during these that her interest in applied sciences grew.
As storm clouds gathered over Europe and the Third Reich began its path of conquest, Hedwig helped her mother escape Austria.
Whilst living in Paris, her looks caught the attention of talent scout and co-founder of MGM studios Louis B Mayer who was in Europe searching for new talent to take back with him to the USA. He called her ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ and convinced her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr in order to distance herself from her association with the Ecstasy movie. The surname Lamarr was Meyer’s wife’s idea as she was an admirer of silent film star Barbara La Marr.
In the 1940s she starred in over 20 movies alongside actors such as Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable.
When the USA declared war on Germany during World War Two, Lamarr wanted to help in the fight against Nazism. Her interest in technology drew her attention to how she could help prevent Nazi U-boats from torpedoing passenger ships.
The US military, however, had other ideas for Lamarr and initially drafted her into the war effort to sell war bonds and entertain the troops. Despite this, she still pressed ahead with her ideas on how to reduce the torpedo threat.
She recruited her neighbour and friend George Antheil to assist her with her idea. Antheil was a composer and together they developed a frequency-hopping system that could not be jammed or tracked.
To achieve this, they used a piano roll to unpredictably alter the signal between a control centre and a torpedo at short bursts within the range of 88 frequencies. (A piano has 88 keys). The code for the frequencies would be held by both the torpedo and the controller making it very difficult for an enemy to scan all of the frequencies and jam the signal.
This technology would allow the US Navy to torpedo Nazi U-boats who were causing chaos in the Atlantic. Despite this, the technology wasn’t adopted by the US Navy until the 1960s due to the technical difficulties of implementing it. Despite that, Hedy and George’s invention laid the groundwork for modern spread-spectrum communication technology which is the basis of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS.
Little was known of their invention until 1997 when Hedy and George received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award. In 2014, they were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
She was one of the pioneers of her time and will forever be remembered for her invention.
Hedy Lamar passed away on January 19th, 2000 at the age of 85.