I don’t want to shock you guys, but, beautiful women haven’t always been taken seriously. Case in point, Hedy Lamarr, remembered today as the very definition of a bombshell beauty from the golden age of Hollywood, dubbed “the world’s most beautiful woman” by none other than MGM’s Louis B. Mayer himself, was also a brilliant inventor, whose patent helped shape the modern world and may be a key to making self-driving cars work.
Road & Track published a fascinating bit of history this week on how the brilliant Lamarr escaped an abusive marriage to an Austrian arms dealer working with the Nazis to come to the U.S. and become a major celebrity. Lamarr was passionate about her new homeland and wanted to do more than just use her pretty face to sell war bonds. She teamed up with composer George Antheil to try and improve allied torpedo control systems.
Hedy did both, raising $25 million for the war effort. Back in Hollywood, she worked with Antheil, trying to prevent the Germans from jamming radio signals. The breakthrough came after an evening of playing piano duets. The two had been switching songs, following the other’s lead from tune to tune. Lamarr called Antheil later that night: “George, I’ve got it.” A transmitter and receiver, she suggested, could be programmed to switch radio frequencies quickly and at short intervals. Even if an enemy picked up a piece of a signal, they wouldn’t guess which frequency came next. Antheil’s experience with player pianos led to the idea of controlling both elements with a paper roll— a kind of early punch card. They called the practice frequency-hopping; their patent was approved in 1942.
The story is full of twists and turns, and well worth taking some time out of your Saturday to read. Her invention is one that is so ubiquitous we definitely could not have the modern world without it today.
Frequency-hopping—moving small bits of information quickly across multiple bandwidths—formed the basis for what is now called Spread Spectrum Technology. The practice makes it possible to have a mobile-phone conversation in a room containing another cellphone, or for your phone to receive GPS coordinates from spacecraft.
Suffice to say, it took many decades for Lemarr to be fully recognized for her contribution to modern life, despite her patent being cited in over 65 other patents from the likes of Sony and Microsoft. It’s a moving story, and you can, and should, read here.