Skip to content

Hedy Lamarr the Inventor

July 25, 2010

The invention of spread spectrum and the role of amateurs in science and technology

Hedy Lamarr was, of course, not a mathematician nor a complexity theorist. She was one of the great movie actresses of all time, and was once “voted” the most beautiful woman in the world. She was also an inventor.

Today I wish to talk about barriers that amateurs face in working in science and technology. Lamarr is a great example of how an amateur can both overcome and be stopped by barriers.

Hedy is the answer to the following question:

What Hollywood actress has a patent?

There may be others now, but I believe she was the first super-star actress to get a patent. She made an important contribution to technology, and faced all the problems that amateurs face when they attempt to make contributions.

Let’s look at what she did, and what barriers she faced.

Spread Spectrum

{\bullet } Lamarr knew about a real problem. It was 1940 and World War Two had started, with England and Germany locked in combat. Hedy knew an important problem: how can one safely control a torpedo with a radio signal? This was important, since torpedos were not very accurate and the ability to remotely control them could be immensely valuable. The story of how she knew about this problem is long, but her previous husband was an arms manufacturer. She had sat in on his corporate meetings—at his insistence—and there she apparently learned about the torpedo problem.

The difficulty in using a radio signal to control a torpedo is essentially the problem of jamming. If you tried to control your torpedo by a signal, eventually the enemy will find out the frequency you are using. Once this is known they could jam your control signal by putting out a strong noise signal on the given frequency.

{\bullet } Lamarr had a solution. Hedy’s brilliant idea was to use frequency hopping—her invention. The transmitter on the ship and receiver in the torpedo would synchronously hop from one frequency to another. This would make jamming very hard, if not completely impossible. The jammer could try to jam all frequencies, but this would require too much equipment and power. Or the jammer could try and guess the hopping schedule used, but that would be also very difficult.

{\bullet } Lamarr found a co-inventor. The story is that at a Hollywood dinner party in 1940 she met the composer George Antheil. George had the experience of using a player piano in his work in the film industry. They agreed to work together, and used the electro-mechanical technology of player piano rolls to work out how to implement her hopping idea.

By 1942 they had received a patent for their invention:

Why Did She Fail?

What happened to their invention? At the time, during the war nothing. Some of the reasons, I believe, she did not succeed immediately are the following:

{\bullet } Other Priorities: We were at war, and there were many other R&D projects that took up all of the US’s resources—and more. These included: radar, sonar, code-breaking, and the atomic bomb. Even if the Navy had wanted to support her ideas, it seems likely there were not enough resources to spare. Not enough resources to make a real effort to bring her invention to reality.

{\bullet } Not The Usual Inventor: This is one of the fundamental barriers that anyone outside the mainstream research community faces. I can imagine the reaction to hearing that the world’s most beautiful actress and a musician had invented a method to help win the war. The obvious reaction would have been, to quote basketball commentator Jeff Van Gundy:

Are you kidding me?

Jeff says this a lot, especially when he sees a player attempt a shot that they usually never make. A translation to this cry of Jeff is: stick to what you are supposed to do. The trouble is that sometimes the ball goes in, even as Jeff says, “are you kidding me?”

{\bullet } Ahead of Technology: This is another standard barrier. Often inventions are created before the technology is ready. Spread-spectrum requires a fairly powerful digital computational ability. The technology that was available in 1940’s was very crude, and it is likely that it was essentially impossible to make her ideas work.

Lamarr’s brilliant idea is used today in wireless communication. Not exactly as she envisioned in her original patented work, but nevertheless in ways that are clearly traceable to her ideas. While it failed initially, Lamarr eventually got the recognition she deserved. She and her co-inventor Antheil won the 1997 Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award. She also won the BULBIE that is called the “Oscar” of inventing. See this for more details on her and other women inventors.

Open Problems

Are there ways to lower the barriers so amateurs can make contributions to science and technology? My discussion before raised many interesting ideas. I would like to think we can do a better job today to make inventions from outside the usual researchers taken seriously.

I look forward to hear some additional ideas on the best ways to do this.

36 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2010 10:15 am

    The Galaxy Zoo Project is doing many interesting things in this vein. They’re crowdsourcing galaxy analysis: so far they’ve received more than 150 million galaxy classifications from more than 200,000 volunteers. They’ve had 16 papers published so far, based on the results, and quite a few more are in the pipeline. It’s more than just standard crowdsourcing, though, as this account shows: It’s a discussion of how Galaxy Zoo volunteers discovered an entirely new class of galaxy, and then did much of the early analysis.

  2. July 25, 2010 11:43 am

    I listened to Neil de Grasse Tyson talk about scientific innovation on the Rationally Speaking podcast. He viewed innovation as a by-product of some other social forces – eg WWII, the price of spices in Asia, reverence for powerful leaders, etc. While incredible people like Perelman or Kepler may fixate on answering certain questions or building new technologies, the rest of us need some other motivator.

    I feel some “open problems” discussed on this blog may have applications too far removed from peoples’ daily lives to motivate them to come up with a solution. Even if a solution leads to something ridiculously desirable like end world hunger, predict stock market activity, or create an unlimited energy source, I think most people need to starve, experience an economic depression, or run out of oil to seriously pursue the problem.

    It’s a pessimistic view, and not quite what you’re asking us to think about, but clearly barriers fall fastest when things get desperate.

    • July 25, 2010 11:49 am

      I guess my question is: what happens after either professionals or amateurs solve an open problem? how long until we see benefits? I’m sure Lamar thought (or hoped) she could roll-out her devise and win the war much earlier… 50 years may be too long for most people wanting recognition

  3. Anonymous permalink
    July 25, 2010 11:43 am

    In computer science, we can support amateurs by supporting open-access journals, and by opening up our society journals and proceedings. Many authors today post papers on their web sites and conscientious authors post to the arXiv, but good luck finding a slightly older FOCS paper online. It is sinful that the public who supports our research can’t see it.

    Another barrier that amateurs face is that they do not know what to do with their research. For example, a patent is not the ultimate recognition, and can be counterproductive.

    • July 26, 2010 9:34 am

      Open-access journals would really help, as well as being able to get to all of the older works. I rely too heavily on Wikipedia for most of my reading. I use arXiv too, but I often don’t know which papers are really worth reading, and which ones are just out of my league.


  4. July 25, 2010 10:57 pm

    Dick asserts: What happened to their invention? At the time, during the war nothing.

    According to the Wikipedia page for “SIGSALY”, Ms. Lamar and Mr. Antheil were voicing ideas that were being pursued independently by the Allies … with outstanding (but secret) success.

    See William R. Bennett, “Secret telephony as a historical example of spread-spectrum communications,” IEEE Trans. Comm., COM-31(1), p. 99. (1983).

    • rjlipton permalink*
      July 26, 2010 8:08 am


      Thanks for this information.I read a few different versions of what happened. But thanks for the pointer.

  5. July 26, 2010 12:20 pm

    Dick asks: “Are there ways to lower the barriers so amateurs can make contributions to science and technology?”

    Just to mention, Neil Stephenson’s classic math-thriller Cryptonomicon suggests some thoughtful answers to Dick’s question (and the technology of SIGSALY mentioned above is one focus of Stephenson’s novel).

    As with any good book or article, there are many ways to read Cryptonomicon. For me it’s about the union of naturality with narrative … specifically, about the 20th century’s evolving notions of mathematical naturality, united with the 20th century’s evolving narrative of the Enlightenment.

    For sure, most of the characters in Cryptonomicon are mathematical amateurs … in the sense that they are passionate lovers of all aspects of mathematics and its practical applications. Good!

    Nowadays, in the 21st century, our notions of mathematical naturality and the Enlightenment are still evolving, and this evolution is (obviously) similarly central to the lives of today’s young mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, as it was central to the 20th century characters in Cryptonomicon. With one big difference … our 21st century surely will be much more exciting and dangerous than 20th century.

    The evolving narrative of modern mathematics is largely conditioned by evolving notions of mathematical naturality, and moreover, the capabilities of engineering and science also are largely determined by prevailing notions mathematical naturality.

    Adopting this naturality-centric and narrative-centric point-of-view leads us to ask questions like “How can our informatic understanding of quantum physics be dovetailed with our emerging notions of mathematical naturality, to find better solutions for the urgent problems of the 21st century?”

    My experience has been that lectures that focus on mathematical naturality-and-narrative are very well received by women and by students … it almost doesn’t matter what specific conclusions are reached, so long as a lecture shows thoughtful respect for naturality and narrative.

    This class of question will be one of the main topics of Michael Nielsen’s coming book The Future of Science, to which I and many folks are looking forward with eager anticipation.

    And so the concluding point is simple: a mathematical community that explicitly states—and takes pains to respect—shared notions of naturality and narrative, is a community that provides vital habitat for amateurs and entrepreneurs, and is congenial to women and students.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    July 26, 2010 2:56 pm

    1. If it is a known problem in math/science/engineering – the experts in the corresponding area should prepare and maintain an a-priori list of known issues that are believed to make it difficult. Clearly stated, and perhaps explained in terms of an amateur.

    An amateur, claiming to have come up with a new invention – should be able to answer them in clear and precise manner.

    The verifiers (the experts) of these claims at least first check these answers (hopefully short and easy to validate) before getting into the final details.

    I beliebe this mode of live PCP-style approach has some potential of streamlining these efforts and possibly filter out many junk attempts.

    [I think it is same as one of your points that you mentioned in one of your previous posts]

    2. Educators at the universities, should advise their students to have open up their minds. In grad school, this was a big shocker for me. Many professors, even with impressive results to their credits, aren’t capable of opening up their imagination and be more accepting to outsiders.

    It ought to start there.

  7. rjlipton permalink*
    July 26, 2010 3:44 pm

    I have a question. Did you all know about Hedy Lamarr’s work as an inventor?

    • July 26, 2010 3:47 pm

      This post was the first I heard of it. I might have taken it as an urban myth had you not included an image of the actual patent.

    • July 26, 2010 3:47 pm

      Yes. In fact, I’d only ever heard of her as an inventor, who also happened to be an actress.

      • July 26, 2010 4:10 pm

        Ditto Michael’s comment. And for all you Blackadder fans … Rowan Atkinson has an STEM degree too! 🙂

    • August 10, 2010 6:24 pm

      I knew, but was not sure about how she would have thought of the idea. The player-piano idea makes her FH idea seem ludicrously obvious! Making this work, given the relatively early electron tube technology in use at the time; no subminiature tubes, for instance; requires a bit of thought. [Remember, the receiver has to be relatively simple; and resistant to shock, magnetism, and goodness knows what else!]

      Here is a different take on Hedy and the invention. He seems awfully down on her, and on many other people, too.

      Any invention by an unknown—read unapproved—inventor, is ignored. This is the good-ol’-boy network at work. Any invention, if it goes against any part of the Standard Model—read dogma—of the time, is not just ignored, but suppressed.
      Likewise, the inventor must come from an approved school or company: Outsiders cannot possibly know anything worth knowing! Not-Invented-Here, bigotry, entrenched interests, ‘official’ procedure, obfuscation of the subject matter, not REALLY helping new people into the field, et cetera, limit people willing to enter the field—any field.

      As others have suggested, making a subject understandable to people will draw more interest from the public. Those who want to learn, will pick it up. Their questions to those in the level above them will help improve the web presentation for their level. Those who decide to do nothing have only themselves to thank for their ignorance.
      Being largely self-taught, a little bias might be showing, in that last paragraph…

    • Betta Sharma permalink
      August 13, 2010 4:37 pm

      Yes; When I started studying Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA Cellular Phone technology) in 1997. Even Irwin Jacobs (Inventor of CDMA/Founder of QualComm) acknowledged her work in his seminal IEEE papers.

  8. July 27, 2010 9:36 am

    Dick asks: Are there ways to lower the barriers so amateurs can make contributions to science and technology?

    Here the phrase “make contributions” cannot sensibly refer solely to “solve important outstanding problems.” The obstacle is the ratio problem: the ratio of outstanding important problems (maybe … 5,000 such problems?) to the pool of mathematical amateurs (maybe … 50,000,000 of them?) is tiny.

    Michael Nielsen’s example of the Galaxy Zoo shows how observational astronomy is circumventing the ratio problem. Of course, to accomplish this, astronomers are reinventing the core narrative of astronomy (namely, the normative answers to “What are the goals of astronomy?”), and reinventing also notions of the natural way to do astronomy (namely, the normative answers to “What are the methods of astronomy?”).

    So Dick’s question (as I conceive it) is really asking for suggested amendments to the mathematics community’s core narrative and ideals of naturality … and Dick’s question is one aspect of Michael Nielsen’s question: What is the future of science, including especially mathematics?

    We see that any serious answer must struggle with the same foundational issues that are raised (to name two examples of many) in Doxiadis, Papadimitriou, Papadatos, and Di Donna’s Logicomix and in Mac Lane’s Mathematics: Form and Function … and furthermore, any serious answer must specify radical changes in the global conception of mathematics and the community that does it.

    Now, that is indeed a mighty tough question.

    • Josh permalink
      July 27, 2010 9:07 pm

      @John Sidles: I am intrigued by your viewpoint. But I do not see how this will change the nature of the mathematics itself, only the nature of the community that does it… Could you elaborate a bit on this point?

      • July 28, 2010 8:53 am

        Josh, I don’t really have an answer … my observation was more that Dick (and Micheal Nielsen too) were asking very tough questions about the future of STEM, to which viable answers are likely to be radical answers.

        Not having answers doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it. One useful approach (for me) has been to study the evolution of the word “nature” -> “natural” -> “naturality”.

        The abstract notion of “naturality” is so recent an innovation in STEM, that (as one can verifiy using the arxiv’s full test search) there is at present a striking lexical gradient: “naturality” is commonplace in mathematics articles, regular in physics, sporadic in computer science, and (nearly) unknown in biology, finance, statistics, and engineering.

        How will the STEM enterprise evolve—including undergraduate education most especially, and also software and public databases—as our developing ideas of naturality diffuse from math and physics into biology, finance, statistics, and engineering?

        This is connected with meaty questions like “What is the natural way to do biology? To do medicine? To do engineering” To do … mathematics?”

        One point-of-view is that sometimes proofs are less interesting than proof technologies, of which the ongoing formalization of the notion of “naturality” is among the powerful. In consequence, ideas of naturality are among the most powerful tools that today’s engineers (and amateurs, students, women) have at-hand, to make sense of a burgeoning mathematical literature.

  9. Fernando permalink
    July 28, 2010 4:36 am

    I’d say that a good start would be by reducing the number of published articles. There are a way too many “tiny-marginal-pseudo-…” results being pushed down the pipeline. If it’s already quite difficult to screen the articles in the arXiv for someone working full time in research, I can imagine that for an amateur is lot harder. Besides, too fancy articles, as those published in Nature or Science, are often misleading, and can put someone not too prepared out of track. Respect to the reader is fundamental. To make things more concrete: what is the percentage of articles you published that you are proud of?

    Different subject: is there a way to lower bound the complexity of a given problem? References are welcomed.

    • rjlipton permalink*
      July 28, 2010 7:54 am


      You have an interesting point. The number of proofs a year is estimated at 200,000 to 300,000. That is a lot.

      • July 28, 2010 10:41 am

        Yes it is a lot.

        When I became interested in the simulation of quantum measurement and noise, I checked to see how many articles John von Neumann had to read, to remain abreast of the literature of the late 1920s and early 1930s. This number was surprisingly small … perhaps 1-3 articles per month (although these were often very good articles). An enviably small number!

        Nowadays the pace is more like 5-10 articles (or more) per day. So a significant challenge nowadays, for professionals and amateurs alike, is to evolve a working notion of naturality—perhaps varying from person to person, but also having communal elements—that allows one to construct viable narratives amid this torrent of results.

        An alternative strategy is to become a specialist in one small area. But although specialization strategies work well for mathematicians, they work less well for physicists, and are wholly infeasible for engineers.

        That is why the emerging engineering disciplines of the 21st century (like molecular dynamical simulation, synthetic biology, and quantum systems engineering) place considerable emphasis on recognizing, adapting, dovetailing, and repurposing as many notions of naturality as feasible, from the existing mathematical literature. It’s for the pragmatic reason, that formal notions of naturality are the best cognitive tools available, for coming to grips with the immensity of the literature.

  10. paul martin permalink
    July 28, 2010 7:40 am

    Trumpet mode on. We used freq-hopping to overcome the problem of acoustic resonance in small arc-lamps. I think we got a patent, but no matter since such is only as important as the size of the bank balance of the company you sue that uses your IPR. So that will be a plea to work on big (mathmatical as well ?) things that only big organisations can compete with you on.

  11. August 5, 2010 11:44 am

    It looks-like there’s an article in this week’s Nature about Foldit, David Baker’s game to get people involved in protein folding.

    The author list for the paper includes an acknowledgment of the more than 57,000 Foldit players, which may be unprecedented on a scientific publication.

    “We had to talk to the editors a bit about getting that in there,” said first author Seth Cooper, a UW doctoral student in computer science. “I think it’s not the standard style of doing things.”

    If you get a chance to visit the Baker Lab seminar on Friday, you will find at least 20 students who seem very excited about science. Their interest seems to be generated by a new approach to doing research.

  12. Commander Awesome permalink
    August 13, 2010 10:28 am

    Currently, I’m doing my master’s degree in Computer Science. I’ve already more or less decided that research isn’t for me. I love teaching and instructing and learning, but I’m just not that hot on research, at least as a career.

    That being said, I love the idea of doing my own work and contributing what I can, where I can. However, I find the entry barrier to be a little overwhelming. A lot of the examples that we see quoted (not all, obviously, but a large number) are from 60 or more years ago. In those days, the pace of information flow was much slower. A couple of papers per month were all you needed to read to keep up on things. As I’ve learned in the course of my grad work, to keep up these days you need to read a _lot_ more. Knowing that I’m already going to be working full time (and possibly with a fair bit of overtime) means that I simply may not have the time to keep up, and I feel many amateurs would be in the same boat.

    I think one of the best things to do, to start, would be to have an amateur-run-expert-overseen wiki or equivalent on computer science subjects. The idea would be to try to keep the information as current to up-to-date as possible so that dedicated amateurs would not have to spend all day, every day, reading every peer-reviewed research paper that came out. It might also be useful for expert researchers as well; if people were to read and break down papers into quick write-ups, provide their opinion, mention applications to other existing computer science fields, would that be useful to academics?

    Further down the light it might be good to put short lesson plans, subject primers and other useful information into it. I think it might be a good way to try to bring non-computer-science enthusiasts into the fold.

    That would tie into one of my personal agenda items, though, and that’s not really the subject of this blog post so I’ll skip it. XD

  13. Introspector permalink
    August 16, 2010 6:55 am

    | Are there ways to lower the barriers so amateurs can make contributions to science and technology?


    (1) Provide a layman’s description of the problem, possibly multiple of them.

    (2) Maintain an Anti-TextBook of the field. Text books attempt to explain all that is known about a field. An amateur does not need to know the details of all that is known; an amateur needs signs at the starts of roads already taken that say “this road has already been explored”, plus a quick summary of the road. An anti-textbook has this, plus it explains all that is still unknown about the problem.

    (3) Maintain a web of Elevator Pitches about each unit of knowledge relevant to the problem. An amateur should not have to read a linear or structured description of the knowledge in a textbook, he should be able to hop from knowledge unit to knowledge unit in an order implied by the associations that arise in his mind. This is crucial, because forcing an amateur to go through a pre-determined structure of the knowledge can kill the unexpected associations of knowledge units that are expected of the amateur.

    • Anonymous permalink
      August 23, 2010 7:43 am

      That was Awesome!
      Esp. “forcing an amateur to go through a pre-determined structure of the knowledge can kill the unexpected associations of knowledge units that are expected of the amateur.”

  14. August 23, 2010 5:20 am


  15. Richard Kimball permalink
    January 7, 2013 2:46 pm

    I’ve known this story for years and have always been fascinated by it. Would love to know more.

  16. January 12, 2013 9:39 pm

    sou brasileiro ,técnico em eletronia e sou apaixonado por hedy lamar há muitos anos apara mim ela é tudo de bom perfeita grande proficional eu não tenho palavras para descrever uma mulhern assim

  17. June 21, 2013 10:13 pm

    The policy of the French automaker Citroën in the 1930s was to not hire engineers trained at the Institute Polytechnique, as they “had been taught how to do things”. Citroën preferred to train workers from their own ranks in scientific basics. They wanted people to think out of the box, and to come up with new solutions to problems. The policy, economic necessities and creativity made Citroën one of the most innovative car companies in the world. Which of course made competitors and motor journalists frown and calling Citroën a company that “finds ingenious solutions to unknown problems”.
    Anyone who breaks conventional thinking is given a hard time. And that doesn’t seem to change with the times.

  18. Kirk Halgren permalink
    December 20, 2014 8:05 am

    I hate to rain on this parade, but she did not invent frequency hopping but this is a brilliant application of it.

    “On March 17, 1903, Nikola Tesla was granted a patent for a system of frequency hopping between two or more channels to prevent communications being blocked. In 1908 Jonathan Zenneck wrote Wireless Telegraphy, which expanded on this concept. Starting in 1915, Zenneck’s system was used by Germany to secure battle field communications.

    Avant garde composer George Antheil and Golden Age actress Hedy Lamarr were granted US Patent 2,292,387 on August 11, 1942 for their Secret Communication System for use in radio guided torpedoes. Their approach was unique in that frequency coordination was done with paper player piano rolls – a novel approach which was never put in practice.”



  1. Hedy Lamarr: She Invented What? | The Ladies Finger
  2. The World Series Of Complexity Theory | Gödel's Lost Letter and P=NP
  4. Absolute Firsts | Gödel's Lost Letter and P=NP
  5. BEHIND HIM, HEDY LAMARR | We Do It Together

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s