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Frequency Hopping CDMA Inventer Hedy Lamarr
Remember when movie stars invented stuff to save world?
A year into the war on terrorism, we need glamorous movie stars to go into their garages and invent enemy-whomping technology.

Beyonce Knowles, Angelina Jolie, Ben Affleck — surely someone like that will come up with a breakthrough that will help make America's foes react like those bugs that yelled "Raid!" in the TV commercials.

And then, after the war, the stars' inventions will no doubt change civilian life around the world.

After all, it happened before at a similar juncture in history.

Well ... once. But it was very inspiring.

Sixty years ago, actress Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-born hottie who'd met Hitler and did the first naked scene in a full-length feature film, was awarded a patent for radio technology intended to help American torpedoes blow up German ships.

Her invention forms the basis for just about all of today's burgeoning wireless communication technologies — digital cell phones, 802.11, satellite-guided smart bombs.

Not only is Lamarr's contribution real, it's getting recognition in the National Women's History Museum in Washington, D.C. And it has won an award this year from that towering establishment of the nerd universe, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE.

Note: If IEEE comes up in conversation, call it "I-triple-E," not "Aiyeeee," which would make people think you had a severe gas pain.

Even now, though, it doesn't seem that many people in tech realize what Lamarr did. "This really sounds unbelievable to me!" says Bill Gross, founder of Idealab, when asked about Lamarr.

Another prominent venture capitalist, who in fact invests mostly in wireless start-ups, confidently says, "I believe he is a holder of many patents." He?

Lamarr grew up as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, a city famed for its tiny sausages in a can. At 19, she became internationally famous because of her nude swimming scene in the Austrian film Ecstasy in the early 1930s. In those days, nobody got naked, not even for baths, so this was quite scandalous.

She married millionaire Austrian arms dealer Fritz Mandl, who regularly met with Adolph Hitler and Italian fascist Benito Mussolini. Mandl often brought along Lamarr, and while the guys ogled her, she picked up a lot of hot tips on the latest advanced weaponry.

She decided she hated the Nazis, and her husband, too, so she escaped to London. Things get a little fuzzy at that point, but somehow she met Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a movie contract. She moved to Hollywood and changed her name, though I can't understand why she didn't stick with Hedwig.

Lamarr became romantically involved with composer George Antheil. As the story goes, Lamarr was listening to Antheil play piano and was thinking about how to make an anti-jamming radio control for torpedoes.

A little bizarre, don't you think? It's no wonder Antheil didn't back away slowly, then move to an undisclosed address in Greenland.

Anyway, the constantly changing notes gave Lamarr an idea: Instead of sending radio control signals to a torpedo using one frequency, which can easily be jammed or intercepted, send it over constantly changing frequencies in a pre-arranged pattern, like notes in a song. If both the sending device and receiving device are synchronized on the same pattern, they'll be able to communicate. An enemy who doesn't know the pattern would never find the signal.

In that pre-electronic age, Antheil designed a mechanical player-piano-type device that would provide the pattern for the sender and receiver. On Aug. 11, 1942, they were awarded patent 2,292,387 for their "Secret Communication System."

The Navy never used it, mostly because it wasn't possible to squeeze a player-piano contraption into a torpedo. After the war, the concept of frequency-hopping faded to black. No one did anything with it until engineers at Sylvania Electronics dusted off the concept in 1957 and used transistors to make it work. It was first used on ships sent to blockade Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis.

Now the concept is called spread spectrum, and more than 1,000 spread spectrum patents have referred back to the Lamarr-Antheil patent as the basis for the technology. Qualcomm's code-division multiple access (CDMA) cell phone technology is based on spread spectrum. So is high-speed, 802.11 wireless Internet access. So is the U.S. military's Milstar satellite communications network.

Turns out the technology is good for more than just secrecy. It allows many times more devices to operate in the same radio spectrum without interfering with each others' signals. Though my CDMA cell phone and yours operate in the same spectrum, they don't interfere with each other because they're working off different patterns of microsecond frequency changes. The signals never bump into each other.

Lamarr died in 2000, but by then wireless devices based on her idea had spread around the globe and changed the way people live and work.

This year, IEEE is honoring women who "distinguished themselves as engineers." Lamarr is one of them, which is a small consolation for never having made a cent on her long-expired patent.

Perhaps there's some oversteering here, toward giving Lamarr too much credit for our wireless world.

"I wouldn't rate spread spectrum as the greatest innovation in cellular telephony," says Arno Penzias, a venture capitalist and former head of Bell Laboratories. Bell Labs conceived of the interlocking cells of radio coverage that form the basis for cellular phone networks. Cells and spread spectrum often work together in today's wireless systems.

Still, Lamarr is one of a kind. The history of celebrity inventors is otherwise a tad spotty. Harry Houdini won a patent for a diving suit. Danny Kaye got a patent for a toy that, when you blew into it, unfurled three snakes. The best one: Steve McQueen patented the bucket seat.

Lamarr's story might inspire other stars to explore their inner inventor, unlocking a talent pool at this time when the nation needs breakthroughs in engineering and science.

I bet that's what Britney Spears is really doing on her "break."



Bill: This is the Hollywood actress who the 120 professor called "invented frequency hopping CDMA".
After reading this article, I think I will try to find the movie "Ecstasy". And from now on, everytime I see a CDMA, I will rememeber CDMA was "invented" by the once naked Hollywood movie star Hedy Lamaar.

Bill: This reminds me of an article I have seen before. (the page is in English, nevermind the encoding)