WIFI. It’s the basis of our lives today, but it all started with this woman, some 60 years ago, when Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, invented what would today be the base of WIFI. During WWII they designed a communication system that would guide torpedoes to their target. This system uses frequency hopping among radio waves, where transmitter and received hop to new frequencies together (source). This achievement dubbed her as the “mother”of WIFI and other wireless communications such as Bluetooth and GPS, which use this frequency hopping method.
Biography. Born in Austria into a Jewish family, father – a bank director and a curious person, encouraged her to question and look closer to the world around her. Her mother was a pianist and got her into arts and music (source). Her original name is Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler.
When she was 16 she got into acting school with the director Reinhardt in Berlin landing her first role in Geld auf der Straβe (“Money on the Street”). She became well-known three years later for her role in the controversial film Ecstasy (1933) performing what is believed to be the first ever on-screen orgasm (source). Her unusual situation lead to the marriage with an arms dealer Fritz Mandl, during which she became privy to dinner-table conversations about weaponry and Nazi strategies. Her familiarity with the mechanics of weaponry later contributed to her invention of the frequency hopping method.
She escaped to Hollywood. Hedy Lamarr first made a name for herself on the big screen, first in Austrian and German cinema, and then in Hollywood. In Hollywood she secured a $3,000-a-week contract with MGM, becoming prominent amongst celebrities.
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FREQUENCY HOPPING METHOD
Inventions. She became friends with Howard Hughes who recognised her inventive capabilities and gifted her some equipment that she could use in her trailer while on set. Hughes took her to the factories, exposing her to the way the airplanes were built and introducing her to the scientists who were working for him. After studying the fastest fish and birds, she proposed new wing designs for airplanes to Hughes, to make the planes faster (source). He sold improved airplanes to the military for the war efforts during WWII.
In 1940 Hedy Lamarr and her friend George Antheil, a composer, invented a frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) or a frequency hopping method and got it patented in 1942. “No one knows what prompted the idea, but Antheil confirmed that it was Lamarr’s design, from which he created a practical model”(source). It was designed to prevent the interception of torpedo transmissions to assist the Allied Forces. It was particularly important to her as Lamarr felt deeply sad for the people who she belonged to being of Jewish descent, and yet living so far away from the atrocities that were happening in her home country.
It was not used in the war as the military was sceptical of its capabilities, but it was finally adapted in 1957. It was used in transmitting underwater positions of the enemy submarines. In 1962 this technology was also used on the ships participating in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Recognition. Their work is now recongnised as “ a precursor to the “spread-spectrum” wireless communication used in mobile phones, global positioning systems, and wi-fi technology.” (source). Controversially, when Lamarr’s patent run out she was not informed. Thus, she was uncredited and uncompensated for an invention that is estimated to be worth $30bn (source).
Lamarr also came up with other inventions such as a bouillon cubes that dissolve in water for a soft fizzy drink like Cola, and a skin-tautening method, which was inspired by the principles of an accordion.
In 1997, Electronic Frontier Foundation officially awarded Lamarr (and Antheil) for inventing FHSS and in 2014 she became part of the Inventors’ Hall of Fame. In 1960 we received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contribution to the film industry.