Hedy Lamarr the Inventor
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?”
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.
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.