February 11, 2010

National Inventors' Day

This is the birthday of Thomas
Edison, who had more than one thousand patents and who remains one of America's most honored inventors.

This is a day to celebrate all inventors. One of the most unexpected inventors in U.S. history, to me at least, is glamorous actress Hedy Lamarr.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, Hedy Lamarr had an interesting life. She studied ballet and piano as a child, and acted in German films as a teenager. She married a man who turned out to be controlling and who didn't like her to be in movies. Her husband manufactured arms, and Lamarr, who was intelligent and gifted in math, learned a lot about military technology from attending meetings with him. She became angry when she realized that her husband was consorting with Nazis (both she and her husband were Jewish), so in 1937 she disguised herself as one of her maids and ran off to Paris.

Lamarr went from Paris to London to Hollywood. There MGM heads changed her name and cast her in 18 films.

So...where does the title “inventor” come in?

Hedy Lamarr, as you recall, learned a lot about military technology. Well, during World War II, Lamarr and German immigrant and composer George Antheil came up with an idea for a secret communication system based on frequency hopping. Their invention, which they patented, used a piano roll from a player piano to change between 88 frequencies; it would make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam.

There was a lag in the military development of the idea, but eventually it was used during a
blockade of Cuba. In the 1990s, Lamarr got an award for her idea plus payment (in stock) for the rights to develop the idea, which became “modern spread-spectrum communication technology.”

In other words, Hedy Lamarr invented something that is used today in many cordless and wireless telephones.

Check out these inventions.

Explore the Lemelson - MIT website about inventions.

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