Saturday, March 13, 2010

Celebrity Saturday: Hedy Lamarr

I can't help but think of Mel Brooks' film Blazing Saddles, and the main villain, Hedley Lamarr (that's Hedley!) whenever I hear about Hedy Lamarr, but, if you don't know, Hedy Lamarr was actually a big Hollywood star back in the day, and she was a bit of an engineer to boot. Here's her mini-bio as it appears on her IMDB page:
The woman many critics and fans alike regard as the most beautiful ever to appear in films was born Hedwig Eva Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, and was a student of theater director Max Reinhardt in Berlin. She began her career in 1930 in Czech and German films. It was the Czech production Ekstase (1933), in which she caused an international sensation by appearing nude and simulating orgasm, that brought her worldwide attention. The resulting notoriety got her called to Hollywood, and she was signed by MGM. The studio changed her name to the more elegant "Hedy Lamarr" and put her in a series of exotic adventure epics such as Algiers (1938) and White Cargo (1942). Her biggest success was in Cecil B. DeMille's spectacular Samson and Delilah (1949) as the title temptress, but her career declined from that point as her looks began to fade and a new crop of beauties supplanted her. She left the screen in 1957.
What's missing is the fact the Hedy, as an amateur engineer, came up with a pretty good idea for encrypted radio communications.  Having been married to a weapons manufacturer in Austria, Hedy had picked up a thing or two about weapons and radio communications, and was inspired when singing alongside composer George Antheil to use a piece from an automated pianola (a piano roll) to encrypt radio transmissions.  The resulting idea is now called spread spectrum transmission, and the basic idea is that, if you consider narrow radio frequencies to be like keys on a piano, then periodically jumping from one key to another in a certain sequence would make it seem to anyone listening like random "white" noise, unless that person knew the sequence being used.  So, according to Lamarr and Antheil's idea, 2 matching piano rolls, one by the sender, one by the receiver, could be used to regulate the jumping from channel to channel just like it regulates the jumping of keys on a pianola.  And while, Lamarr and Antheil were not the only ones thinking about this type of "divided" or "spread" spectrum technology, they hit upon the idea independently, gained a patent (see image), and the resulting implementation of these ideas (many years later) is responsible for most wireless technology, from cell phones to bluetooth to Wi-Fi technology.  So, if you are reading this on a phone or a computer that's using a wireless network, you can thank Hedy Lamarr (among others).

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