If you’ve been doing some Googlin’ this morning you might have noticed today’s #GoogleDoodle is dedicated to Hedy Lamarr. You might recognize her as the Austrian MGM movie star who shared the silver screen with Hollywood’s biggest names during the 1930s to the 1950s. But because of her stunning exotic appearance, the consistent typecasting as the glamorous seductress in films began to bore her, and she turned to aiding in the war effort by selling war bonds. Of course she was wildly successful, but her interest in science was what fueled her passion for defeating the Nazi effort, and led to her role as an inventor.
Her earliest inventions included an improved traffic stoplight, an aspirin-type tablet that dissolved in water to create a carbonated beverage, and a “frequency-hopping spread-spectrum” invention. She lived next door to an avant-garde composer whom she befriended named George Antheil. I like to imagine them having coffee on his porch or in her parlor, smoking cigarettes and talking about Hollywood and torpedoes. She ended up devoting an entire room in her house to drafting this idea. She already knew lots about weapons due to her teenage marriage to Heinrich Mandl, an munition manufacturer, and Antheil had a firm grasp on remote control technology and spread spectrum sequences from using them in his experimental compositions. According to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, they were granted a patent for a “Secret Communication System” that would reduce the danger of detection or jamming for radio-controlled torpedoes. Subsequent patents in frequency changing have referred to the Lamarr-Antheil patent as the basis of the field, and the concept lies behind the principal anti-jamming devices used today.
If you’re trying to wrap your head around what “spread-spectrum technology” could mean (I still am unclear what that is), it’s basically how Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS works. So today, if you find yourself waiting at a stop light, searching for a Wi-Fi signal, or in the path of a radio-controlled torpedo, think of Hedy Lamarr and wish her a Happy 101st Birthday.