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A mother like no other

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A loyal reader informed me that the frequency-hopping technology today known as spread spectrum — upon which cellular communications and other wireless technologies, such as CDMA, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, are based — was invented by the actress Hedy LaMarr.

Not long ago, I wrote an online column about Marty Cooper — the "father of the cell phone" — in which I shared his vision regarding ways that wireless communications technologies could change the world in the future. It was interesting stuff, especially since the source was the guy who changed the world in the first place, given that today there are something like 5 billion mobile phones in service worldwide — nearly one for every man, woman and child on the planet.

That column elicited an e-mail from a loyal reader who informed me that the frequency-hopping technology today known as spread spectrum — upon which cellular communications and other wireless technologies, such as CDMA, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, are based — was invented by the actress Hedy LaMarr.

Actually, I knew this about LaMarr. The reason I knew this is that LaMarr was the lead actress in one of my favorite movies, 1942's Tortilla Flat, , which was based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, and which also starred the great Spencer Tracy. LaMarr was a terrific actress and a true beauty who also shared the screen with other film legends, including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart.

LaMarr was an Austrian native who fled her country in the late 1930s and eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953. Her first marriage was to an Austrian arms manufacturer named Friedrich "Fritz" Mandl, who consorted with Nazi industrialists and staged lavish parties that were attended by Nazi party leaders — including Adolf Hitler — on occasion. It was at these parties, where LaMarr listened to talk of weaponry, that the seed of an idea was planted.

After becoming established in Hollywood, LaMarr found herself one evening at a party attended by a composer named George Antheil, who had developed a way to synchronize multiple player pianos to perform a score he had written. They put their heads together and surmised that the concept could be applied to radio waves. Their idea involved a piano roll that could cause a radio signal to hop among 88 different frequencies.

In 1942 they received a patent, which was good timing, because the U.S. entered World War II at the tail end of the previous year. LaMarr and Antheil took their patent to the U.S. Navy, and offered it to them free of charge. By this time, Hitler's army was running roughshod through Austria and the rest of Europe, and LaMarr wanted to help stop him. The idea from LaMarr and Antheil was to use frequency-hopping to make it more difficult for the Nazis to jam the radio signals guiding the torpedoes used by our Navy. Almost unbelievably, they were rejected — in part because the Navy brass didn't understand how a musical technology could be applied to weaponry.

The patent eventually expired, after which Sylvania picked up the concept in the early 1950s and renamed it spread-spectrum technology. It eventually was used for a military purpose, first on Navy ships during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, it is the basis of the anti-jamming devices contained in the guidance system used for the U.S. arsenal of intercontinental missiles.

Boeing thought so highly of LaMarr's scientific abilities and achievement that, in 2003, the company featured her in a series of recruitment ads that made no mention of her acting career.

Given all this, I think it is safe to refer to LaMarr — who died in 2000 — as the mother of modern communications. She was a terrific actress — and an even better inventor.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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