In her essay, 10 things you don’t know about women, Alyssa Milano credits women with giving us circular saws, bulletproof vests, spacesuits, signal flares and windshield wipers, all of which are certainly important inventions in their own right. But there’s one woman whose invention is easily overlooked because she invented it so long before it had a practical civilian application, and was so far ahead of its time that it sat on a shelf for decades before anything became of it. I’m talking about frequency-hopping technology, also known as spread-spectrum, invented by the actress Hedy Lamarr during WWII. It’s the basis of the Qualcomm CDMA wireless phone standard currently utilized by Sprint and Verizon in their cell phone networks as well as Wi-Fi wireless computer networks. Look at the back of every Sprint or Verizon phone and you’ll see “Digital by Qualcomm,” as Qualcomm holds the patent and manufactures the ASICs that make those phones communicate through the unique language of CDMA.
The idea for spread spectrum grew from Hedy’s marriage to a German arms dealer, who at the time was supplying Adolf Hitler with torpedoes as well as guidance signal-jamming technology. Being Jewish, Hedy despised Hitler and begged her husband to stop supporting him, but he refused. So one night she drugged him and the French maid who was hired to keep watch on her, put on the maid’s uniform and fled her marriage and Nazi Germany to London to continue her acting career. At one glamorous Hollywood dinner party in 1941 she met the musician George Antheil, whose player piano symphonies (using as many as 14 at once) had earned him a reputation as a bad boy of music of that era, as riots started in Europe at his performances. This led to a lasting relationship between the two of them, and with George’s skill with player pianos they created a device that would make it impossible to detect or jam the radio signals used to guide torpedoes.
Hedy and George were issued patent #2292387 for the “secret communications system” in 1942. She presented the idea to the U.S. military, and they ignored her – apparently unable to take her seriously as someone who could contribute to weapons technology and preferring more to appreciate her other talents as a beautiful actress. We may never know how the war would have been different if her invention had been put into use back then. It wasn’t until twenty years later that the Navy finally did put it into use for torpedo guidance systems, and forty years later that the FCC approved it for commercial use. The U.S. Military currently uses it as the basis for the ultra-secure MILSAT defense communications system.
In the early ’90s, engineers at Qualcomm developed the idea to include a technique to vary transmit power dynamically from tower to handset, and devised the Code-Division-Multiple-Access standard for cellular phones that we use today.
The basic idea is simple, yet brilliant. Rather than using a single frequency to communicate with something or someone, use lots of them, hopping randomly from one to the next after just a fraction of a second. It originally worked on the concept of a slowly spinning tube with bumps on it (like a music box) giving the instructions of which frequency to use, but of course today’s modern electronics use a synchronized, randomly generated sequence of frequencies instead. This made signal jamming and detection almost impossible, and in cell phones it enables the multiplexing of thousands of conversations together over a smaller frequency range than other technologies like TDMA or GSM used by Cingular and T-Mobile. This means greater capacity, and is the main reason you don’t see the “Network Busy” message of decades past, even with the explosion in growth of cellular phones throughout the US since then.
Despite all this amazing technology, neither Hedy nor George ever received a single cent for any of it. The patent was allowed to expire long before anyone realized what could be done with it – and the rest of the technology needed to utilize it had yet to be invented.
In March of 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation honored Hedy with a Pioneer Award for her contribution to our modern world of telecommunications. It was all she ever received for it, and her response was simply, “It’s about time.” One can hardly fault her for this statement as she lived out her post-Hollywood years on nothing more than Social Security and her pension from the Screen Actors Guild.
Hedy died alone in her sleep on January 19, 2000 at her home in Altamonte Springs, Florida at age 86.