Saturday, March 16, 2013

SHEroes Part II: Hedy Lamarr

And no, that's not "Hedley."

Next time you pick up your cell phone to make a call or access Google, you can thank this silent film star and sex symbol of the '30s and '40s for making the technology possible. 

As history tells the tale, Hedy's marriage to an Austrian weapons manufacturer, Fritz Mandl, hit the skids with lots of animosity built up between them. During their years together, she'd sat in on lots of business meetings where Fritz the Fascist attempted to devise ways to eavesdrop on or jam American radio signals for the Nazis' benefit. 

Not just a pretty face, Hedy had absorbed a lot of information during those dull meetings. So much so that she figured out if radio signals "hopped" or rapidly changed through a predetermined pattern known only to the sender and receiver, enemy spies could not figure out the message or intercept it.

Together with her friend, composer George Antheil, she filed a patent for her hopping radio frequency spectrum (which used player piano rolls to set up the patterns, hence her friend's expertise!). For years, the U.S. military ignored her recommendations, but after a decade or two, with the invention of transistors, they adapted its use with great success. 

Nowadays, that same frequency-hopping technology is used to enable cell phones, GPS, and WiFi. Hedy died in the year 2000, never really seeing the broad use of her genius and with the patent expired so that her estate received little or no monetary reward.

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