If you’ve ever used Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or got directions from Google Maps, please take a moment to thank Hedy Lamarr.
The Austrian-American actress, once called “the most beautiful woman in the world”, was born in Austria in 1914, and in 1937 she went to Hollywood, where she starred in highly acclaimed films such as Algiers (1938), The Strange Woman (1946) and Samson and Delilah (1949).
However, Lamarr was not only an actress, but also a pioneering inventor. She wasn’t interested in partying and interacting with Hollywood nobles, so she spent her nights tinkering, building and experimenting in her workshop. Her inventions ranged from a tablet that could dissolve in water and turn it into a carbonated drink, to a new and improved traffic light design.
However, her most important invention was sparked by the desire to help America win a terrible war. Lamarr was of Jewish descent and was horrified by the news that was coming home from World War II. Desperately wanted to help the Allied forces defeat the Nazis, she focused her creative energy on things that could give the Allies an advantage.
One of the Allies’ greatest problems was that their torpedo guidance technology was easily thwarted by the Nazis. At that time, German submarines could avoid Allied torpedoes by simply jamming a single radio frequency they were using for guidance. To solve this problem, Lamarr has come up with an ingenious solution: frequency hopping.
“She understood that the problem with radio signals was that they could be jammed. But if you could make the signal jump more or less randomly from radio frequency to radio frequency, the person on the other side trying to jam the signal won’t know where it is, ”NPR historian Richard Rhodes told NPR in 2011. If they try to drown out one particular frequency, they may hit that frequency with one of its hops, but it will only be there for a fraction of a second.
The difficult part, of course, was that these frequency shifts had to be in perfect timing with the torpedo homing radio, otherwise it would fail and the torpedo would go off track shortly after launch.
Lamarr has dealt with this challenge with the help of composer and inventor George Antheil. Thanks to Lamarr’s technical skill and Antheil’s mechanical skill, they built a device that acted like a mechanical piano reel to synchronize the torpedo and transmitter on the ship as they simultaneously jumped from one frequency to the other. The duo received a patent for their invention in 1942.
Lamarr’s invention was never used by the US Navy during World War II, but was used for radio broadcasts during the Cuban Missile Crisis. More importantly, frequency hopping laid the foundations for the wide variety of radio communication technologies we use today.
Nowadays, frequency hopping is used in Bluetooth technology, which we find in countless devices, as well as in the early forms of Wi-Fi, and laid the groundwork for the GPS you regularly use on your smartphone. The world wouldn’t be the same without Lamarr’s ingenious mind.
Unfortunately, many are unaware of Lamarr’s contribution to modern technology and her efforts to help Allied forces win WWII, as she is known primarily as an actress. She has not received the recognition she deserved for these achievements in her time, and is still underrated for this work.