Stories of innovation: Bluetooth

Stories of innovation: Bluetooth

What: Bluetooth

Who: Prolific 1940s Austrian-American actress and mathematician HedyLamarr co-invented frequency-hopping technology with avant-garde composer George Antheil, forming the basis for wireless communication. 

When: Lamarr and Antheil were granted a patent for their “secret communication system” in 1942.

The story: Lamarr was born in Vienna in 1913 and began acting at an early age. Shortly after moving to the US in the 1930s to pursue a career in Hollywood, war broke out in Europe. When German troops occupied her native Austria, Lamarr, whose passion for inventing had already led her to conduct a number of experiments, felt she must do something to contribute to the Allies’ cause.

In between her films, Lamarr and Antheil focused on trying to find a way to improve the notoriously difficult-to-control torpedoes on

Allied ships. Lamarr thought torpedoes could be more accurate if they were radio guided, but knew radio signals could be easily jammed. She therefore focused on creating a system where a signal would jump from frequency to frequency, making it extremely difficult for the person at the other end to detect or jam the torpedo.

Lamarr and Antheil received a patent for their invention but the US Navy failed to adopt the technology (probably because they were upset they didn’t come up with the idea first). The device wasn’t used until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, conveniently after the patent had expired. It wasn’t until 1997 that Lamarr and Antheil got the recognition they deserved, when their frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology formed the basis for the invention of wireless communication Bluetooth.

Impact & Legacy: Frequency hopping technologies were used by military communication in the late 20th century. Most notably however, Lamarr’s work became the core foundation behind the development of wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi networks and cell phones. Unfortunately, most people have no idea how much this bombshell contributed to modern technology, so next time you make a call on your cell or use your laptop, whisper a little thanks to Lamarr for her work. 

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