The Jewish Museum in Vienna hosted a fascinating exhibition about her life and inventions in 2020, documentaries on TV talk about the ingenious goddess and last October a prize was awarded in her name (find a report on the award ceremony here). We speak about Vienna-born Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood actress, most beautiful woman in the world and tragically misunderstood genius.
A keen spirit, tenacity and a disregard for clichés
At DreiKreis it is our mission to promote female talent in the IT world and make women more visible. After Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr is another extraordinary woman, who at the tender age of 27 came up with one of the most remarkable inventions in modern communication technology. What is even more impressive: Lamarr had no relevant education.
Instead, she demonstrated that what matters is unrestricted thinking, tenacity, and the ability to liberate oneself from society’s rules, social norms and the ignorance of others.
Lamarr’s story encourages women to use their intellect
Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood actress. But neither her fame nor success in this glittering industry kept her from developing a plethora of creative and sometimes brilliant ideas. She was so determined that she kept a miniature inventing table with her to use during breaks at the film set. Her son describes her enthusiasm: “After a long day at work she didn’t meet friends, she went home and worked on her inventions.”
I don’t have to work on ideas, they just come.
Ingenious invention: frequency hopping
In the early 1940s Nazi-Germany’s Navy seemed unstoppable. German submarines were sinking Allied ships with civilians, even children on board. “Destroying the German submarines appeared to be impossible. The outdated British torpedoes had no chance,” recounts Lamarr’s son.
But somewhere across the Atlantic Lamarr had an idea: torpedoes, radio-controlled and directed remotely could do the trick. Remote control, however, would require continuous communication between ship and torpedo. The problem: radio communication wasn’t secure. The enemy could detect, which radio frequency was used and consequently deploy radio interference to block all communication. This process was called jamming.
But Lamarr found a way around. If messages were sent using constantly changing frequencies, jamming would only block short snippets of communication.
From everyday objects to the basis for modern communication technology
It is told that her invention might have been inspired by the recently developed remote control for radios („Philco Magic Box“), which allowed the listener to hop between radio stations.
What Lamarr did was imaginative. She transferred technology she saw in the entertainment world into an instrument of warfare. At DreiKreis we applaud this complete liberation of her mind from the shackles of conformity!
Professor Danijela Cabric, Secure Communications, UCLA, states in an interview: the fact that she understood the frequency component of the signal and how this changes is ingenious. Thomas Edison was no engineer either. You don’t need a university degree to invent something new.”
You don’t need a university degree to invent something new.
Hedy Lamarr worked together with American avant-garde composer, George Antheil to implement her idea. He used his knowledge of how player pianos were synchronised, namely by starting paper rolls at the exact same time, turning them at the same speed.
The same way, they thought, ship and torpedo could be equipped with identical information about the frequencies to be used – making it impossible for hostile interferences to jam the communication. A total of 88 different frequencies was to render the security of the system virtually shell-proof.
At first, the idea seemed to fly. The Inventors Council, a government organisation in which engineers and inventors decided on the possible military and national defence use of inventions, recognised originality, and value of the idea. They forged a contact between Lamarr and Antheil and a physicist, who designed the electronic components for the system. Patent was awarded in 1941.
Revolutionary innovation for the filing cabinet
But the U.S. Navy refused to use Lamarr’s idea and it landed in a filing cabinet.
Not a penny did Lamarr receive for her invention, the value of which is estimated to be $30 billion today.
Eventually, her idea was picked up by the communications industry and became the basis of our modern mobile phones, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth as well as billion-dollar military satellites. Even today, the most secret and important commands of the US military are encrypted in a way based on Hedy Lamarr’s invention.
Dare to think
Even though her genius was misunderstood throughout her lifetime, Hedy Lamarr said about her philosophy: “the greatest people with the greatest ideas can be silenced by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think anyway! What takes you a lifetime to build, can be destroyed overnight. Build anyway!”
And maybe the important legacy of this remarkable and tragically misunderstood woman isn‘t her beautiful screen-image nor her billion-dollar invention, but her courage and tenacity with which she challenged boundaries and dared to think!
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