Today, Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. It’s a technology used by billions of people every single day and has allowed for the emergence of entirely new industries. The benefits of Wi-Fi are legend, and have become an integral, some would say inseparable and essential, part of modern life. Yet, few of us ever pause to wonder where it came from. Who came up with the basic idea behind Wi-Fi and how did the concept even start?
To answer these questions, we need to turn to the life of a World War II-era Hollywood actress and inventor, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, but who, on the eve of the Second World War, would become known as Hedy Lamarr.
Who Was Hedy Lamarr?
Before we get into how this amazing person you have probably never heard of came up with Wi-Fi, we should take a look at who she was. Back in 1990, a decade before she died, she remarked how, “The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think.” As someone who was a world renown beauty herself, indeed, widely proclaimed as “the world’s most beautiful woman,” the stereotypical thinking of the day was Hedy was just another gorgeous Hollywood actress during the WWII era. Yet, she was probably smarter than many of us.
Hedy was born to Jewish parents in Austria in 1914. She married early, when just 19, to one of the richest men in that country, a wealthy munitions manufacturer, well connected to fascist Italy and a (temporary) supporter of Nazi Germany. Unhappy and unfulfilled in this marriage, she escaped in the middle of the night with typical forethought and daring, taking all her jewels, and dressed as a maid on a bicycle.
Shortly before World War II broke out, Hedy left for the United States aboard, ironically for an inventor, the most powerful steam turbo-electric-propelled passenger ship ever constructed, the transatlantic superliner, the French built Normandie. Even before arriving in New York, and again with typical forethought and daring, she was unavoidably spotted by the head of MGM Studio at the time, Louis B. Mayer. Despite knowing very little English, she negotiated a contract, ($US500 a week in 1939 - worth $US9528 a week in 2021), that would cement her future as a Hollywood actress.
It wasn’t long before she got comfortable in Hollywood, socialising with other renowned actors and actresses, as well as notable figures like John F. Kennedy and Howard Hughes. It was the latter who gave her equipment she then used for various experiments she conducted in her trailer, between going on camera. Her true passion was inventing while thinking outside the box.
Shifting Her Focus To Inventing
This star of movies such as Algiers, and Sampson & Delilah, simply loved inventing. Hedy once remarked how she didn’t even need to work on brainstorming ideas, they just came naturally to her. She was no stranger to hard work either, starring in 30 feature films in just 28 years, in addition to television and radio appearances.
However, despite her acting skills, when it came to negotiations that would ensure she received fair compensation for her inventions, Hedy was not so successful for a number of reasons. Most notably that which gave her most success, her gender. For example, the patent she filed with her “frequency hopping” co-inventor, George Antheil, took decades to bear any financial fruit. What eventually became a multi-national, multi-billion-dollar Wi-Fi and mobile phone industry, was originally conceived to create frequency agile communications and torpedo guidance systems in the war against the Nazis. However, “frequency hopping” gave nothing back to Hedy, not even recognition, until 1997. By this time, she was 82 years old and would only live, in virtual seclusion, for another 3 years.
Hedy rightly found it challenging not receiving due recognition for her tremendous contributions, receiving little press in the 1940s. What most people, Howard Hughes not among them, wanted her to focus on, was being a glamorous Hollywood actress, gracing the big screen.
Louis B. Mayer, who originally negotiated her contract on the Normandie, was a misogynist,
something all too common in those days. For him, women were either one of two things: seductive or put on a pedestal to be admired from far away. When it came down to it, Mayer saw Lamarr as someone who was supposed to just be pretty and sexy on camera. In reality, she was so much more.
The Inspiration To Become An Inventor
Let’s go back a little to set the scene in the world two years after Hedy Lamarr boarded the
transatlantic liner where she met Mayer. In 1940, the Nazis were using U-boats to sink hundreds of thousands of tonnes of shipping in the Atlantic Ocean. They were torpedoing ships, in unrestricted warfare, and with little opposition, in the undersea raiders first, “Happy time.” Often, and with tragic irony, women and children fleeing the Nazis, were aboard these ships. As a woman who was born in the home country of the German dictator Adolf Hitler, and who saw his political rise, Lamarr knew something of this plight and the desperation which caused people to find themselves on a ship.
While Hedy was married to the arms manufacturer Fritz Mendl, she learned everything she
could from him when it came to top-secret weapons systems. The topics absolutely fascinated her. As she saw the Nazis increasing their power in Europe, Hedy made the prudent decision to leave her marriage with Mendl, and her native Austria. She escaped, and set sail for the New World, ensuring her financial future during her travels.
How Hedy Lamarr Invented Wi-Fi
The path to inventing “frequency hopping” for Hedy started back early in WWII. She and George Antheil, a music composer she met at MGM Studios developed a practical idea to provide a new radio guidance system for US torpedoes, one which would be exceedingly difficult to jam electronically. What they would create became known as the “Secret Communication System”.
The original subsequently patented idea was a synchronised radio transmitting and receiving process that would continually change radio frequencies. This would make it extremely difficult for an enemy to listen out for, copy down, then decode the complete message as transmitted.
The same system could have been adapted for use by US torpedoes, to provide a secure method of guidance, unlikely to be jammed, and allowing the “tin fish” to be course corrected if required during its run into the target. Up to this time, US Mark 14 torpedoes were fire and forget, speeding towards their target at 46 knots. They had no means of control once they left the torpedo tube. If the aiming point was wrong, they would miss their target. Thus, a frequency hopping (FH) radio-controlled torpedo would have been more accurate, reaching a target without interference. There’s little doubt of the real potential torpedo FH radio control had to send more enemy shipping to Davy Jones’ locker and help win the war for the Allies.
To develop the original radio system, she had a drafting table, good lighting, and a set of important tools. Being self-taught meant she had to read a vast number of engineering reference books to invent her Secret Communication System. In fact, she had an entire wall lined with books to help her in this endeavour.
While Lamarr and Antheil were partners in developing their invention, Lamar was the real
brains behind it. Thanks to her extensive understanding of technical issues such as munitions, the Secret Communications System was made possible. Hedy Lamarr filed a patent for this invention in 1942, after which she proposed the US Navy adopt it. She could not have known the US Navy’s deepest secret at the time, their torpedoes didn’t work properly and hadn’t since the early 1930s!
If you thought the US Navy would have welcomed the Secret Communication System
with open arms, then you would be disappointed. They refused it for reasons that now seem
ridiculous. For one, they disregarded it due to being invented by a civilian, a woman no less, who could better serve her new country, in an Admirals opinion at least, by selling war bonds.
Additionally, they perceived it as being too complex and futuristic - apparently, they weren’t familiar with the intricate workings of a German Enigma cypher machine… Hedy maintained her contract as a Hollywood actress and explored other ways she could help the US win the war. One of those resulted in her working for the United Service Organisations (USO).
The Female Animal in 1958 marked the end of her film career in Hollywood, but her revolutionary invention finally began to interest people in high places. Around this time, the concept of the Secret Communication System finally started to be adopted by the private sector via CDMA network technology being developed. Code Division Multiple Access, is one of two original systems used for mobile (cell) phones. CDMA and GSM (Global System for Mobiles) both introduced 2G and 3G technology.
In the early 1960s, the US Navy finally took a serious look at Hedy’s invention, using it around the time the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. However, its use would become most well-known through its help in the development of two wireless technologies: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Recognition Received Only Decades Later
Sadly, Hedy would seldom be recognised for her immense contributions to the digital age. She had to watch other inventors pushing their “frequency hopping” inventions and see them take off. In fact, those who came after her had their own contributions to advance Wi-Fi technology to a place she could never have dreamed of.
Currently, frequency hopping is widespread, especially in mobile phones, as well as GPS and super secure military communication systems. Its use has blanketed the world and gained exceptional popularity due mostly to technological necessity.
It would be decades before Hedy Lamarr would be given recognition for her vital role in the creation and rollout of these two revolutionary technologies. This came in the late 1990s only 3 years before her passing. She received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, as well as the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award. However, due to presumed embarrassment about her appearance because of botched plastic surgery, she didn’t accept them in person.
Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame as recently as 2014, nearly ¾ of a century after her ground-breaking work.
Even if she isn’t still around to see it, developments of her work certainly are, and these are fitting tributes. Hedy continues to receive the types of relevant recognition of her intelligence she deserves. A TV series of her real life, Hedy Lamarr, began pre-production in 2018, and the award-winning Australian spy techno thriller, Yearn to Fear, was released in late 2020, using 5G Wi-Fi technology in its central plot while acknowledging Hedy’s contribution.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Hedy Lamarr’s role in the development of Wi-Fi is
that she was self-taught. She never had any sort of formal training. Perhaps this actually allowed her to think outside the box since she had no idea what the box was supposed to be. Combining her own life experiences with her creative imagination and intellect, helped her produce one of the most vital inventions of the modern era. Thanks to her following her passion, she was able to make her mark on the world, leave a legacy and help society achieve greater progress.
Evolution Of Wi-Fi
The 1970s saw the creation of ALOHAnet, as well as the ALOHA protocol. These were used to make it easier for people on the Hawaiian Islands to communicate with each other using a UHF wireless packet network.
These two technologies were possible thanks to Lamarr’s Secret Communication System,
and were the predecessors of Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Around this time was when Vic Hayes, who has been called the “Father of Wi-Fi,” developed the IEEE 802.11 Standards Working Group. This standard protocol would eventually launch in 1997. Although being very slow at the time compared to speeds that are possible today, it’s speed of 2Mb/s, was incredibly fast. Two years later, 802.11b was launched, which increased transmission speed up to 11Mb/s. This is around the time the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance was formed, which ended up becoming the WiFi Alliance. It was at this point that Wi-Fi became a term the public started using to refer to wireless internet.
Wi-Fi has become an integral part of society, used by businesses, governments, and
consumers alike. Billions of people use it every day. There is perhaps no technology that has made a bigger impact in recent history than Wi-Fi. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the woman who became the pioneer of Wi-Fi, even if Hedy Lamarr didn’t know it at the time.
You can see how Hedy Lamarr became the de-facto inventor of Wi-Fi. While she may have
started out as a Hollywood actress, and a very good one at that, her true calling was inventing. Not only was she an inventor, she was that someone who came up with an invention that revolutionised the world, helping pave the way for the Third Industrial Revolution. Hedy’s story shows us that anyone can achieve great things. It also demonstrates that following your passions is something that can lead to extraordinary feats, even if not fully recognised in your own lifetime.
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