Although she is better known as a movie star of the 1940s, actress Hedy Lamarr helped pave the way for cell phones by designing a signal technology to rapidly change frequencies. During Women’s History Month, it is important to recognize achievements by women who were overlooked during their lifetime.
A play, Frequency Hopping, shows her as a shrewd inventor who was ahead of her time. The play tells the story of how Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, left an unhappy marriage to an Austrian Fascist weapons manufacturer in 1937. He attempted to stall her acting career by bringing her to business meetings, where she was constantly listening to plans to develop detection devices to foil American aircraft and weapons. Lamarr wanted to foil their plans.
Lamarr realized that by rapidly changing the frequencies for radio signals, or “hopping” frequencies, American weapons that were guided by radio would be more resistant to jamming and detection. The sequence would be known by Americans, but the message would make no sense to the German detectors. “No jammer could detect it, no German code-breaker could decipher a completely random code,” she says in the play.
Lamarr escaped her controlling and abusive marriage and came to Los Angeles. She changed her name to Hedy Lamarr, and continued her flourishing film career. She worked on her radio project for several years, and in 1940 teamed up with avant-garde composer George Antheil, to produce the technology, since the spectrum of frequency hopping is based on a musical concept, or “carried in waves through space like melodies,” Lamarr’s character explains.
They patented the technology and presented the concept to the Navy in 1940. The invention used a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies, and the Navy was not interested at the time. However, the technology was later used by the military during the Cuban Missle Crisis in 1962 and later in wireless technologies. It was recognized in 1997, when Lamarr was honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation with a special award, and became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.