Austrian actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr inducted into the IP Hall of Fame
By Matteo Sabattini, Ph.D., MBA, Director IPR Policy at Ericsson
Ms. Lamarr pioneered the use of spread spectrum — frequency hopping in particular — for secure communications. By transmitting at different frequencies in different time intervals (therefore “hopping” from one frequency to another) according to a code only known to the transmitting and the receiving parties, classified messages could be transmitted with low probability of detection and even lower probability of interpretation. Together with coinventor George Antheil, she applied for patent protection of her invention in 1941, and was granted US Patent 2,292,387 in 1942. The technology found applications in radio-controlled torpedoes. However, the significance of her invention was not fully realized until many years later: spread spectrum is a foundational technology for modern mobile communications.
A multifaceted, brilliant luminary and piano virtuoso, Ms. Lamarr got her original idea precisely from music. Frequency hopping spread spectrum is based on musical concepts, and data is carried from one frequency to the next like a melody. Her co-inventor, Mr. Antheil, was an avant-garde composer.
Necessity is the mother of all inventions, and at the time the U.S. was fighting a bloody — and, thanks to exceptional individuals like Ms. Lamarr, at the end successful — war against the Nazi’s evil regime. In fact, Ms. Lamarr herself had fled Austria after walking away from a miserable marriage with an Austrian fascist. However, without the patent system and its disclosure quid pro quo —the inventor is granted a right in exchange for public disclosure of its invention — other innovators would probably not have benefitted from Ms. Lamarr’s pioneering work in spread spectrum.
We stand on the shoulders of geniuses, not giants. The U.S. Patent System, and all other modern, robust, enforceable intellectual property systems, have fueled an unprecedented pace of innovation, as the Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Mr. Andrei Iancu, has often stated. The fact that sharing ingenuity, inventiveness and creativity generates further innovation in a virtuous cycle has long been recognized. The codification of that virtuous cycle in the law has helped shape the world as we know it, and it is currently pushing creativity and innovation to levels that we can hardly comprehend, let alone anticipate.
While discussion is underway as to how to close the gender and minority gap in STEM education, technology and patent filings — where the gap is unfortunately even more profound — Ms. Lamarr was a revolutionary in that area too. As we take this opportunity to celebrate her achievements in innovation, we should also take a lesson from the groundbreaking way she questioned the status quo and shattered stereotypes more than half a century ago.