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Woman net.heroes: Heddy Lemar
Gary Chapman writes well and informatively in his LA Times column on Heddy
Lemar and her place as one of the century's most important technical
innovators. Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, and Grace Hopper also
come to mind as important innovators. Ada of one century before tho.
Monday, January 31, 2000
Hedy Lamarr's Invention Finally Comes of Age
By Gary Chapman
Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved
The obituaries for movie actress Hedy Lamarr, who died at her home in
Florida on Jan. 19 at age 86, all mentioned the fact that she co-invented
an important technology for radio communications called "frequency
hopping." But none of the obituaries described the significance of her
invention for current and emerging technologies, or the fact that her
intellectual breakthrough will fuel the next great boom in Internet use.
What was called "frequency hopping" in the 1940s, when Lamarr and her
friend George Antheil developed the idea, is now generally called "spread
spectrum" wireless communication. Looking around my house, I can see that
it's rapidly filling up with spread spectrum devices dependent on Lamarr's
and Antheil's innovation.
There are my cordless and wireless phones, for example. Just about every
digital wireless phone uses a version of spread spectrum techniques. For
Christmas I got a hand-held global positioning satellite device, a little
box that tells me exactly where I am; GPS uses spread spectrum too.
I expect to be using a lot more spread spectrum tools in the future.
Dale Hatfield, director of the Office of Engineering and Technology of the
Federal Communications Commission, told me last week, "Spread spectrum
appears to be the technology of choice for the next generation of mobile
data devices." As everyone knows by now, wireless is where everything
related to the Internet is headed.
If Lamarr had been able to retain her patent rights, she would possibly
have become the richest person of all time. But she struggled with
finances for most of her later years -- she was even arrested for
shoplifting twice. Her story highlights the weird tragedies of the patent
system when an inventor develops an idea decades ahead of its time.
The tale of Lamarr's technical contributions is familiar to many
engineers, but largely unknown among the general public. It's possibly the
oddest and most ironic story in recent technological history.
Hedy Lamarr was born as Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1913, and she was
famous before she left her teens because of a scandalous nude scene in her
first movie, the Czech film "Ecstasy," released in 1932. She married a
wealthy Austrian industrialist, Fritz Mandl, when she was 19. Mandl was so
jealous of her beauty that he tried to prevent her from leaving the house,
which meant that Hedy sat through many dinner conversations and some
technical meetings where she apparently absorbed a remarkably advanced
education in radio technology.
Lamarr eventually escaped this loveless marriage and made her way to
London, where she was discovered by Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM.
Mayer brought her to Hollywood, installed her in his stable of studio
actors and billed her as "the most beautiful woman in movies."
Lamarr met George Antheil at a Hollywood party. He was an equally unlikely
candidate for technical innovation -- he was a pioneer in avant-garde
music in the 1930s, and his specialty was composing mechanistic pieces for
Lamarr explained her ideas to Antheil about developing a method for
communications that could not be intercepted or jammed, by "hopping"
radio signals over different frequencies. Antheil provided the mechanical
means to do this by using his knowledge of player pianos. Their invention
used a paper tape, like player piano rolls, to synchronize radio
communications that would jump from one frequency to another. They shared
the patent for this device in 1942.
Lamarr's and Antheil's invention was not used by the military until 1962,
when it helped secure communications between ships involved in the Cuban
missile crisis. By then, their patent had expired. Patents last only 17
years. Even though Lamarr's work became crucial to military communications
through the most intense period of the Cold War -- eventually embedded in
the country's entire nuclear command and control system -- she never made
any money from her technical work, nor did Antheil.
Throughout the 1950s, '60s and '70s, spread spectrum technologies were
highly classified and available only for military applications.
But in 1985, the Federal Communications Commission began to relax its
rules, and spread spectrum was opened for commercial development. The
first applications were for commercial satellite services, but the
technology quickly became the bedrock for mobile telephones. Qualcomm,
for example, the booming San Diego-based mobile telephone company, was
built on spread spectrum applications.
In recent years the FCC has released segments of the radio bandwidth for
unlicensed radio communication, and this bandwidth is being used by spread
spectrum applications. Spread spectrum radio communication has the
advantages of getting more digital bits into a segment of radio bandwidth,
of reducing device interference, and increasing security. Without this
innovation, wireless phone users would be talking to and hearing each
other without wanting to, or else the number of phone users in a given
area would be very limited. Think about all the cell phones in Los
Angeles, and thank Hedy Lamarr.
There is a handy match between the way spread spectrum works and the way
the Internet works, because Internet data packets can be "hopped" over
many frequencies and reassembled at their destination, providing very fast
data transmission rates. Cisco Systems, the giant Internet routing
company, already offers a fixed wireless, point-to-point spread spectrum
network connection at 45 million bits per second.
The real promise of spread spectrum technologies is in rural areas,
neighborhoods, schools and Third World countries, where relatively
inexpensive wireless devices can substitute for expensive ground wire
Wireless Internet activist Dave Hughes of Colorado Springs, Colo., has
used spread spectrum networks to connect people in the jungles of Puerto
Rico, in the remote woods of Wisconsin and Montana, and in the plains of
Mongolia. A presentation Hughes gave in Austin, Texas, in 1998 led to a
change in the state's Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, the
country's largest public fund for wiring communities. Now rural Texas
towns can apply for grants to network their communities with spread
spectrum wireless devices.
Hughes successfully lobbied for Hedy Lamarr to be honored with a special
"Pioneer Award" from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997.
Lamarr also reportedly took some comfort in her knowledge that she had
produced an idea of great use to people all over the world. She did live
long enough to understand the impact of her invention. As Dale Hatfield
said, her invention was a "fundamental breakthrough."
Hedy Lamarr once said, with some ironic bitterness, "Any girl can be
glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." She was
glamorous, all right, but she was anything but stupid.
Gary Chapman Is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of
Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.