From Strapless to Wireless

Hedy Lamarr helped to set the groundwork for some of the most revolutionary technology of our time.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Lamarr, a passionate opponent of the Nazis, wanted to contribute more to the allied effort. As Mrs. Fritz Mandl, she had closely observed the planning and discussions that went into attempting to design remote-controlled torpedoes. These never went into production, because the radio-controlled guidance system was too susceptible to disruption. She got the idea of distributing the torpedo guidance signal over several frequencies, thus protecting it from enemy jamming. The only weak point was how to employ the synchronization of the signal's transmitter and receiver.

In 1940, Lamarr met the American avant-garde composer George Antheil of "ballet mécanique" fame. She described her idea to him, and asked him to help her construct a device that would enable this signal to be synchronized. Antheil laid out a system based on 88 frequencies, corresponding to the number of keys on a piano, using perforated paper rolls which would turn in sync with one another, transmitting and receiving ever-changing frequencies, preventing interceptance and jamming.

In December of 1940, the "frequency hopping" device developed by Lamarr and Antheil was submitted to the national inventors council, a semi-military inventors' association. Lamarr and Antheil went on to file for a patent application for the "Secret Communication System," June 10, 1941. The patent was granted by the United States patent office on august 11, 1942.

Lamarr and Antheil immediately placed their patent at the disposal of the US military. Though the us government did not deploy the "secret communication system" during World War II, the US Navy commissioned a project to acoustically detect submarines using sonar buoys remote-controlled from airplanes employing "frequency hopping" in the 1950s.

Twenty years after its conceptualization, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the first instance of large-scale military deployment of Lamarr and Antheil's frequency hopping technology was implemented-- not for the remote-controlled guidance of torpedoes, but to provide secure communications among the ships involved in the naval blockade. The early '60s saw the development of reconnaissance drones based on frequency hopping, which were later deployed in Vietnam. With the emergence of digital technology and the military's release of frequency hopping for public use in the

1980s, Lamarr and Antheil's invention took on new significance. Instead of "frequency hopping," today's term is "spread spectrum" but the basic idea is the same. The FCC recently allotted a special section of the radio spectrum for an experiment using the spread spectrum idea in a test designed to make cell phone calls more secure. A lot of corporate dollars have been invested in this process which has allowed more cell phone users to use the existing frequency spectrum.

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