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This Day in Audio/Tech History - August 11th

AUGUST 11, 1942 - Hedy Markey and George Antheil received a U.S. patent for a frequency-hopping device intended to protect Allied transmissions from being tapped by Nazi forces. Markey is better known by her screen name – Hedy Lamarr.

Lamarr—born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria in 1914—was forced by her fascist Austrian weapons manufacturer husband to attend his business meetings, where she found herself, according to the play Frequency Hopping, listening to "fat bastards argue antiaircraft this, vacuum tube that." In those meetings, they talked about developing detection devices to listen to, and jam, the radio signals of American aircraft and communications.

Since he also opposed her acting career Lamarr left him and Europe making her way to Hollywood. As her screen career developed she never forgot what she had heard in those meetings and realized that if the frequencies of those transmissions could “hop” from one to another it would be impossible for the Nazi’s (or anyone else for that matter) to listen in on or jam the transmission.

She found an unlikely collaborator, composer George Anthiel, and together they developed a "Secret Communications System" that manipulated radio frequencies at irregular intervals using a modified piano roll to ensure both the transmitter and the receiver followed the same sequence and remained in synch. The invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.

Lamarr and Anthiel got their patent, but the military was unimpressed (mostly because they wrote her off as an “actress”) and the significance of their invention was not realized until decades later. It was first implemented on U.S. Navy vessels during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and subsequently found its way into many military applications. It didn’t stop there, the "spread spectrum" technology that Lamarr helped to invent makes cellular phones, fax machines and Wi-Fi possible.


It wasn’t until 1997, 55 years after the initial patent was granted, that Hedy Lamarr and George Anthiel were finally recognized for their contribution and awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. Later that same year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed "The Oscar™ of Inventing."

Lamarr shattered stereotypes and earned a place among the 20th century's most important women and celebrity inventors (yep, there’s more of them than you might think).

Photo Credit - "Hedy Lamarr - Publicity" by Studio - eBay. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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