Hedy Lamarr is best known as a glamorous and talented actress who captivated audiences during the Golden Age of film. But many don’t know that she was also a tech pioneer who helped pave the way for girls and women in computer science.
In 1942, Lamarr and her pianist, George Antheil, wanted to come up with a way to secure torpedo radio signals used in wartime. One problem with military technology during World War II was that radio signals were not secure. They were sent along one frequency band, which could easily be hijacked and controlled by enemies.
While analyzing a player piano, Lamarr and Antheil used the 88 keys and the paper player roll for inspiration. They discovered that perforating a paper piano roll could switch the radio signals sent from a control center to a torpedo into a random pattern. Doing so in short, fast bursts among 88 different frequencies would make it difficult for enemies to intercept the signal and take control of torpedos. The method is called spread spectrum frequency hopping, and they dubbed it a Secret Communications System.
Lamarr and Antheil received a patent for spread spectrum frequency hopping, and they donated the technology to the U.S. military which didn’t implement it due to apprehension about using paper player piano rolls in torpedos. The patent was rediscovered in the 1950s when private tech companies began developing wireless technologies.
Spread spectrum frequency hopping makes it possible for all of us to use broadband technology. Without it, only large corporations could afford to buy and use limited radio space. We’re able to have multiple users share radio frequencies at the same time without interference because of spread spectrum frequency hopping. It enables a lot of the technology all of use on a daily basis to exist, including cell phone networks, WiFi, and Bluetooth technology. The military also now uses it in various capacities for encrypted communications.
Lamarr was recognized for her tech contributions with an Electronic Frontier Foundation award in 1997, and she died in 2000. In the 1940s few women were involved in tech advancements, but today Lamarr is not only known as a glamorous actress. She’s a well respected role model for girls and women who are interested in tech and who want to contribute inventive ideas.
To honor her 100th birthday, We Can Code IT is giving away free Hedy Lamarr posters. Hang them in your office, classroom, or home to inspire girls to go into tech.