Hedy Lamarr (via archive photography)
Major technology contributions and motion picture acting rarely go hand-in-hand in someone's career path, but screen actor Hedy Lamarr pulled it off and gave the world the earliest form of spread spectrum communication.
In 1933, Lamarr married Fruedrich Mandl a Vienna-based arms manufacturer. Mandl kept her from pursuing much in life. The controlling nature of the marriage found her either locked up in castle Schwarzenau or at Mandl's side. He would bring her to meetings with arms clients, military leaders, and technology talks. In which she learned about issues with guiding torpedoes via radio while protecting against jamming. In the autobiography 'Ecstacy and Me," parties hosted by Mandl had Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as guests. She had to escape.
Reports offer a few ways in which she escaped Mandl. One has her disguising herself as a maid. The other is a far more movie-like plot. She asked Mandl is she could dress in all of her expensive jewelry for an up-and-coming party. At which, she drugged Mandl and escaped covered in the riches. Either way, she escaped to Paris in 1937. She promptly filed for divorce and moved to London.
Louis B. Mayer, a film producer, hired Lamarr. At the time Lamarr was going by her original name Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. Mayer insisted she change her name to Hedy Lamarr, in homage to the silent era actress Barbara LaMarr, who died from an overdose in 1926. (As for actor's lives, I see not much has changed.)
Later in life, Lamarr met composer George Antheil at a dinner in Hollywood. Antheil is famous for his cacophonous 'Ballet Mécanique' and the open-top pianola that could teach keyboard techniques. How it came to the subject of torpedoes; no one will ever know, but the conversation steered in that direction. Together they developed an early form of spread spectrum wireless communication.
Lamarr said that wireless communication could be protected from jamming by varying the frequency of transmission. In the duo's design, the communication system would switch between 88 different frequencies unpredictably. The idea was to make sure the enemy has no idea which frequency to block. Antheil contributed coordinating the transmitter and receiver by controlling a switch that would move different channels in two piano rolls running at the same speed. Soon after, US Patent 2,292,387 was granted to the pair on June 10, 1941 under the name "Secret Communication System." Unfortunately, the pair never earned a dollar from the effort.
Functional drawing of the system (via USPTO)
Antheil died in 1959 never to see the ultimate value of his thoughts.
Portrait of George Antheil, and cover of a 1995 Col Legno published album
Later, in 1962, the idea was used in military warships during the blockade of Cuba. The patent was expired by that time.
The idea was forgotten until 1997 when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave an award to Lamarr for the contribution. Following in 1998, Wi-LAN inc "acquired a 49 percent claim to the patent from Lamarr for an undisclosed amount of stock," but since it was expired, no money may have actually exchanged hands. However, it was a dignified gesture to honor the early creators.
Although Lamarr was never able to directly help in military efforts during WWII. She wanted to join the National Inventors Council, but was told she could do more for the effort by selling bonds. She followed their suggestion, and during one such fund raiser event, she sold $7 million in bonds. (Which is $791 million in 2011 dollars, adjusted for inflation.)
Unfortunately, Lamarr passed away on January 19, 2000, but her legacy lives on. The concept is now part of everyday life. The concept keeps all out wireless communications, be it cell phones or WiFi, from interfering with each other. Next time you make a call remember, you are using a "Secret Communication System."
More Hedy Lamarr (via archive photography)
Read more about Hedy Lamarr in the following books:
Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman
Beautidul: The Life of Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr and a Secret Communication System
Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone