From silver screen goddess to Bluetooth pioneer: The legacy of Hedy Lamarr

From silver screen goddess to Bluetooth pioneer: The legacy of Hedy Lamarr
by Peta Leggatt
Pharmaceutical Technical Expert, Clarivate Analytics
IP and Standards

This article is part of an ongoing series from Clarivate Analytics celebrating women in STEM with profiles of female inventors, scientists, researchers, and corporate leaders featured in Derwent, Web of Science, BioWorld, and Publons. See more articles in this series, or follow our online campaign using #WomenAtClarivate.

We expect that most female inventors come from an academic background, but occasionally some surprise you…

The movie star Hedy Lamarr was born in Austria in 1914, with her stellar (and occasionally scandalous) screen career and colorful personal life well documented. What is less well known is that in 1942, under her real name of Hedy Kiesler Markey, she co-patented an invention to prevent signal jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes (US2292387A).

Although not an academic, Hedy’s first marriage was to a wealthy Austrian armaments manufacturer and this gave her access to detailed background knowledge of weapons technology. After her escape from both her husband and Nazi-controlled Europe to America, she worked with a musician friend George Anthiel to develop a method of controlled ‘frequency hopping’ radio signals which could not be tracked or jammed. To control the changes in the signal, she and Anthiel brilliantly adapted the recording roll mechanism from a miniaturized ‘player-piano’ (pianola).[1]

What is less well known is that in 1942, under her real name of Hedy Kiesler Markey, she co-patented an invention to prevent signal jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes (US2292387A).

At the time, though, the US Navy was not entirely receptive to outside suggestions, let alone suggestions from a woman, and this combined with technology issues in producing the invention meant that WW2 had ended before this could be used. 1 By the time of the Cuban Missile crisis, though, the Navy had realized the potential of the technology and an updated version of her invention had been put in place on ships.

She and Anthiel were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 and also received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award. (The latter is awarded to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences, business, or invention fields have significantly contributed to society.)

“Secret Communication System.” US2292387A (Excerpt). H.K. Markey et al. Patent filed June 10, 1941.

Recognition may have come late, but her brilliance was finally acknowledged by the scientific community who hadn’t initially taken her very seriously.

Hedy’s ‘frequency hopping’ turned out to be the early ancestor of ‘spread spectrum’ radio technology, without which GPS, Bluetooth and WiFi could not have been developed. Her patent is cited by 171 later inventions; for example, US8542643B2, published in 2013, for “Selecting communications channels based on performance e.g. in Wireless Personal Area Network Bluetooth system.”

So much of what we take for granted today is owed to a woman better known for her screen presence!

Follow the Clarivate Analytics blog series celebrating women in STEM: Women at Clarivate 2018.

[1] “‘Most Beautiful Woman’ By Day, Inventor By Night”. NPR. November 22, 2011. Retrieved May 26, 2015.

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