An Actress and a Scholar

Hedy Lamarr was a European and American actress of the 1930s and 1940s.  Once called “the most beautiful woman in Europe,” her most successful role was as the lead in Cecil DeMille’s 1949 “Samson and Delilah.”

Lamarr was also an inventor who helped enable modern wireless communications.

During World War II, radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be jammed by interfering with the control signal.  Lamarr and her neighbor, composer George Antheil, brainstormed the idea of switching the signal frequency at random intervals to avoid jamming.  They developed a prototype using a player piano, a piano roll and 88 different frequencies (corresponding to the 88 keys of a piano).

On August 11, 1942, Lamarr and Antheil earned a U.S. patent for their invention.  The innovation was considered so vital to national defense that government officials would not allow its details to be published.  However, frequency hopping was not used by the U.S. until the 1962 blockade of Cuba.

Today, spreading the spectrum through frequency hopping is the basis for modern spread-spectrum communications technologies.  Spreading a signal across the frequency domain reduces interference and noise, increases security, and enhances the efficient use of available bandwidth.

Lamarr aspired to be known for more than her beauty.  “Any girl can be glamorous,” she said.  “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”  She tried to join the National Inventors Council after earning her patent, but was told that she could better serve the war effort by using her celebrity to sell war bonds.

In 1960, Lamarr was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  In 2014 (14 years after her death), she and Antheil were inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame.  “When I die,” she once said, “I want on my gravestone: ‘Thank you very much for a colorful life.’”

As a leader in wireless test and measurement solutions, Keysight Technologies (Agilent’s electronic measurement business) has a product portfolio that includes best-in-class arbitrary waveform generators, spectrum analyzers and network analyzers.  Keysight’s frequency-jamming technologies have also been used by the military to disable improvised explosive devices (IEDs).


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