Although Hedy Lamarr is best known for her work as a Hollywood acting star of the 1930s and 1940s, she also devised a radio technology that was ahead of its time and will continue to play a role in the development of telecommunications: frequency shifting. Born into a wealthy Viennese banking family on November 9, 1913, Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler. As a young woman, Lamarr appeared in a Czech movie Ecstasy, which caught the attention of one Fritz Mandel, an Austrian arms dealer. Mandel married the 19-year-old, and Lamarr received a thorough education in arms and military technology at an endless stream of business dinners. One topic of conversation that intrigued her involved guiding radio signals while protecting them from enemy interference. She left Mandel in 1937, in part because her husband began to become more and more involved with Nazi Germany, and escaped to London, then Hollywood, where her film career took off. It was at a Hollywood dinner party in 1940 that she met George Antheil, a film scorer and avant-garde composer, and together they brainstormed the concept of frequency shifting, also known as frequency hopping.
Lamarr's and Antheil's idea is simple. To elude any interception of radio signals send between a transmitter and receiver, the signals can be divided into parts and each part is sent out separately across a frequency spectrum. The transmitter and receiver are synchronized, and a jammer could take out only a portion, if anything, of the signal, since it would be tuned to only one frequency. Antheil's idea for synchronization was based on his experience with player pianos, and the kind of tape they use to play music. The pair patented their idea in August 1942, and intended it to be used against the Nazis as part of the American effort in World War II. Unfortunately, the military did not use the frequency shifting idea during that war, and they first used the technology in 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis. By then, the patent had expired, Antheil had died, and Lamarr never received any profit from her idea. Although Lamarr had other invention ideas--including one where a cube could be dropped into water to make a soda drink--none of them came to complete fruition.
However, frequency shifting has continued to grow in importance, especially with the advent of computers and related technologies. Though the principal remains the same, the transmitter uses a specific shared code to send a signal over a spectrum of frequencies to the receiver, instead of random shifting. With the availability of digital signal processing and fast microchips, frequency shifting has been marketed under the name Spread Spectrum and used in wireless telephones and data transmission. The principal is also used by the American government's Milstar defense communication system. Lamarr, now retired after appearing in her last film in 1958, was finally recognized for her contribution by an Electric Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award for technological innovation in March 1997. She died on January 19, 2000, in Orlando, Florida.