Hedy Lamarr Wasn't Just An Actress – Part 1

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Cotributor: Odinekachukwu Ishicheli

Did an exotic actress from Vienna, considered one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood in the 1940s, really invent wireless?

Not exactly, but the non-sensationalized facts of the matter are no less fascinating, involving Hollywood, the World War II Axis Powers, and remote control technology.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known as “Hedy Lamarr”, once really did patent a “Secret Communication System” for radio communication, meant to foil the Axis during WWII. It was specifically designed to be used as a remote control system to securely guide torpedoes while getting around the problem of jamming.  Her idea at its core was really part of the larger concept of “frequency-hopping”, with her device developed with composer George Antheil.  

Long forgotten until relatively recently, when it was re-discovered by researchers in 1997, the methods used in her invention were far ahead of their time, with the principles behind it paving the way for wide spectrum communication technology we enjoy today in Bluetooth and other wireless technologies. (Incidentally, Bluetooth is named after a 10th century Scandinavian king.)

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During WWII, the National Inventors’ Council was formed to recruit Americans to pitch in with ideas to foil the Axis Powers. Technological inventions aimed at breaking encoded communications and encryptions were especially sought.

Lamarr submitted an idea for a radio-controlled torpedo. As mentioned, Hedy’s idea, in collaboration with the avant-garde musician George Antheil who had previously experimented with automated control of musical instruments, used “frequency hopping”, wherein transmitter and receiver communicated via a channel that constantly changed frequencies, making it difficult to detect and jam.

The idea of the torpedo communication system was to utilize a piano roll like punch tape to create signals within 88 different frequencies (emulating the keys of a piano) of the radio spectrum, in a sequence shared only by the torpedo’s receiver and the transmitter on the ship.

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Specifically, as laid out in her and Antheil George’s patent (US2292387):

Briefly, our system as adapted for radio control of a. remote craft, employs a pair of synchronous records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, which change the tuning of the transmitting and receiving apparatus from time to time, so that without knowledge of the records an enemy would be unable to determine at what frequency a controlling impulse would be sent…. in our system such a record would permit the use of 88 different carrier frequencies, from one to another of which both the transmitting and receiving station would be changed at intervals. Furthermore, records of the type described can be made of substantial length and may be driven slow or fast. This makes it possible for a. pair of records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, to run for a length of time ample for the remote control of a device such as a torpedo.

The two records may be synchronized by driving them with accurately calibrated constant speed spring motors, such as are employed for driving clocks and chronometers. However, it is also within the scope of our invention to periodically correct the position of the record at the receiving station by transmitting synchronous impulses from the transmitting station…

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