The great names of innovation: Hedy Lamarr

Do you know what Wi-fi and a radio-controlled torpedo have in common?
They use the same transmission protocol: Frequency-hopping spread spectrum, and it was me who invented it.

Hello, I’m Hedy Lamarr, an actress and inventor.

I was born in Vienna in 1914 and grew up making all sorts of gadgets: a fluorescent dog collar, effervescent tablets… Already passionate about technology.

In the early 1930s, I started a career in the cinema industry, where I got noticed for my outstanding beauty. I was an onscreen vixen, and the shock at my moral freedom reached as far as Pope Pius XII.

In 1937, I went to Hollywood where I was a triumph on the screen.

In 1940, at the height of my success, with the war raging I sought a way to help the Allies. I then met pianist George Antheil who shared my political ideas and my knowledge of weaponry.

Bringing together his talent as a composer and my scientific mind, we invented an encryption protocol, which could enable the Allies to prevent the German Navy from deviating their torpedoes.
This was FHSS transmission – Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum.

The principle is simple: a given frequency spectrum is split into several channels. The radio signal hops rapidly from channel to channel, in a “composition” that is known only to the transmitter and the receiver. In the case of radio-controlled torpedoes, this makes them virtually undetectable by the enemy.

In 1941, I filed the patent and gave it to the U.S. Navy. However, as they did not know how to use it at the time, they didn’t do anything with it until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

It was in the 1980s that my invention had its greatest success with communication equipment manufacturers. It was used for the tools that you can no longer go without today: mobile telephony, GPS, Bluetooth, and most of all Wi-fi!

Although my contribution to science has not always been as talked about as my artistic talents, I did receive the Electronic Frontier Foundation pioneer award in 1997. And in 2014, I was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. I am now hailed as one of the greatest inventors of the twentieth century, and as for FHSS, it still constitutes a reference protocol.

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