Hername wasn’t always Hedy Lamarr. She was born Hedwig Eva Maria Keisler in Vienna to a successful banker and her pianist mother. Louis B. Mayer (of Metro Goldwyn Mayer) met her in Paris where he hired her, changed her name, and in 1938 became a star. It’s from her mom’s side that Lamarr got her love for piano, and was the neighbour of an avant garde composer named George Antheil who helped make her a success outside the entertainment world.
George had a problem. He composed complex music that required multiple player pianos. Synchronizing them so they played the right notes at the right time was a huge headache until the pair figured out how to do it.
After more than a decade of use, Lamarr and Antheil got caught up in the Second World War — and wanted to help the allies. At the time it was apparent that the best way to avoid the enemy jamming radio signals was to split the communication up and broadcast it over more than one frequency. It’s as if your car radio needed four channels just to hear one song. And the best way to ensure the enemy didn’t catch-on as to which frequencies you were using, was to randomize which frequencies you used.
There’s only one problem with that: how does the radio-controlled torpedo you’ve just fired know what frequencies you’re using if you keep changing them? Player piano rolls, that’s how.
Lamarr and Antheil received a patent in 1942 for a frequency hopping technology using player piano rolls to synchronize 88 different frequencies. Each hole in the roll represented a frequency. Turn the rolls at the exact same time and both the transmitter and receiver switch frequencies and maintain contact.
Unfortunately this was too late for the war, really. And it was so complicated, they couldn’t take advantage of the concept until the 1960s when computers were fast enough and synchronized well enough to make it work on a large scale.
We use this synchronization-based multiple frequency theory Lamarr and Antheil pioneered today for encrypted high quality two way communication.
In1985 the FCC in the United States made three low-power frequency bands available for use with this so-called “spread spectrum communication.” Within months Qualcomm was incorporated to commercialize Code Division Multiple Access. CDMA is the predominant cellular phone technology used in North America today.
It’s also the basis for WiFi and Bluetooth.
Three years before Lamarr’s death in 2000 she received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. The EFF, in its press release, noted the general public’s “near absolute ignorance” about her contribution to telecommunications today.
Not just another pretty face.