Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What famous Golden Age Hollywood actress holds an underlying patent for Wi-Fi technology?

Hedy LamarrImage via Wikipedia
Wi-Fi technology is one the lynchpins of the modern computing age (especially for those poor iPhone users trying to eek out data consumption on AT&T's crippled cell network). Still, like all modern tech, Wi-Fi was built on the technical specifications that came before it -- many of which arrived via unlikely or unnoticed contributors.

Take, for example, basic spread-spectrum frequency hopping, the process by which radio signals are varied to ensure that no passing form of interference or jamming can subvert the transmission. The concept goes back at least as far as Nikola Tesla who patented a remote control torpedo in 1898. Tesla, however, is not the only famous name to hold an underlying patent for Wi-Fi technology. Modern Wi-Fi tech owes its existence in part to performer with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

What famous Golden Age Hollywood actress holds an underlying patent for Wi-Fi technology?

The late Hedy Lamarr, who starred in such classic as Boomtown, White Cargo, Tortilla Flat and Ziegfield Girl, patented a form frequency-hopping technology that underlies modern Wi-Fi communications.

On August 11, 1942, Lamarr and composer George Antheil received US patent number 2,292,387 for a "secret communication system". The pair developed the technology as a means for playing musical instruments remotely, but adapted it for protecting radio-guided torpedoes from enemy jamming. At its heart, the system used a modified player-piano roll to dictate a pattern of frequency hopping that insulates transmissions from persistent forms of interference.

Lamarr and Antheil's patent is cited as underlying technology in modern Wi-Fi and CDMA standards. In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation recognized Lamarr's contributions to modern communications and, for several years in the 1990s, Lamar's portrait was used as cover art for consecutive editions of CorelDRAW. (Rather than being flattered, Lamarr sued for illegal use of her image; the groups settled in 1999.)

Half-Life 2 players may also recall that the character Dr. Kleiner has a pet headcrap named Lamarr, which he affectionately refers to as Hedy. While that is far from Lamarr's most important influence on modern technology, it is a definitive example of her impact on the Truly Trivial.
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