Friday, February 6, 2015

Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Inventor


Last year I did a post on Merle Oberon, one of the great beauties of the early cinema. I figured that was a worthy theme, so I thought I would do a followup, this time featuring Hedy Lamarr, who in the 1930s was sometimes called "the most beautiful woman in the world." Setting aside the cultural biases implicit in that statement, I think we can agree that she was a looker. What I didn't know before researching her was that she was also a brainiac whose hobby was inventing things.

This story at NPR explains that "in the 1940s — in an attempt to help the war effort — she quietly invented what would become the precursor to many wireless technologies we use today, including Bluetooth, GPS, cellphone networks and more." This is all detailed in a book by Richard Rhodes called Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Rhodes explains in this excerpt from the NPR story:
As she was inventing, Rhodes says, Lamarr was simultaneously glued to the events of World War II. When German submarines began targeting passenger cruise liners, he says, she felt compelled to invent something to help the Allied cause. She zeroed in on torpedoes, which were powerful weapons but hard to control. Rhodes says she thought that if they could be radio-guided, there was a better chance they would hit their target. "She understood that the problem with radio signals was that they could be jammed. But if you could make the signal hop around more or less randomly from radio frequency to radio frequency, then the person at the other end trying to jam the signal won't know where it is," he says. "If they try to jam one particular frequency, it might hit that frequency on one of its hops, but it would only be there for a fraction of a second."
The ideas of Lamarr and her co-inventor George Antheil were eventually worked into the US Navy's technology called the "sonobuoy" that "would use sonar to detect submarines in the water and transmit the information to an airplane above." Lamarr's idea added the crucial jam-proofing element. The NPR piece says that "today, vestiges of her frequency-hopping technique are found in most digital devices that communicate wirelessly."

I guess she ignored advice to not worry her pretty little head about stuff.

1 comment:

  1. I knew about this. And yet, all these years later, female engineering students are still treated as second-class citizens. Maybe if Lamarr's contributions had been taught at classroom level rather than annectdotal movie-star gossip. But look what it took for Alan Turing to become a household name—a screenplay with a sexual preference subplot and a heartthrob in the leading role—and, but for Turing, a whole lot of the world would be goosestepping. Sad. As an aside, my father worked with sonobuoys for a lot of his career.

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