No, Hedy Lamarr did not ‘make’ Wi-Fi
The top row of the Facebook meme shows three portraits of men.
- Jack Dorsey: “I made Twitter”
- Mark Zuckerberg: “I made Facebook”
- Steve Jobs: “I made Apple”
Underneath is the beautiful Hollywood actor Hedy Lamarr.
“I MADE WIFI”
It’s been shared by several of my friends, all of whom I know would have posted it with the best of intentions. Other shares (e.g., this one, this one, and this one) are in the hundreds of thousands now.
But the good intentions of my friends and the hundreds of thousands of shares doesn’t change the fact that it’s just not true.
Hedy Lamarr did not “make” Wi-Fi — certainly not in the sense the meme implies — as a genius entrepreneur. She couldn’t have.
Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs were born in 1976, 1984, and 1955, respectively, and Twitter, Facebook, and Apple Inc. were all launched when these men were reasonably young and active in tech (2006, 2004, and 1976, respectively). Their pivotal role as founders is well documented.
In contrast, Hedy Lamarr was born November 9, 1914. She wasn’t a tech entrepreneur like the others; originally from Vienna, she was a film actress who left her ammunition-manufacturing husband Friedrich Mandl in 1937 and fled to Paris and then Hollywood, where she had a prolific and successful career as an actress.
Wi-Fi was developed in the 1990s at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, but she was not a member of the Institute; nor did she work for NCT, AT&T, or Bell Labs; nor is there any sort of documented relationship between her and Vic Hayes or Bruce Tuch (who really did develop Wi-Fi).
Nor could she have had anything to do with securing its use in iBooks in 1999, not unless simply telephoning around was how that task was accomplished. This is because thirty years earlier, Lamarr had gone into seclusion, communicating with the outside world only by telephone. One year later, she would pass away.
It’s not quite as ridiculous as claiming a dead president Hugo Chavez was involved in designing the software of voting machines that “stole” the election from Trump, but it’s in the same ballpark. It’s an invented fact — designed to support the idea that women are naturally brilliant at science and technology. But should we really be using invented facts to support an idea, even if it’s an important idea that deserves support?
What Hedy Lamarr did do is this. In the early days of World War II, she and her composer friend George Antheil proposed a guidance system for torpedoes that would be harder for enemies to jam. As they say in the patent, “…it has been very difficult in the past to employ radio control of a torpedo, for the reason that the enemy could quickly discover the frequency of the control signals and block control...”
Hence, “we employ variable frequency radio transmitters and receivers for the remote control, and change the frequency at intervals by synchronous records at the two stations.”
How do they make sure the mother ship and the torpedo change frequency at the same time? “…we contemplate employing records of the type used for many years in player pianos, and which consist, of long rolls of paper having perforations...”
In other words, to stop the enemy from understanding the guidance signal to a torpedo, both the torpedo and the mother ship flip quickly from channel to channel on the radio. But it’s okay for them to do this because they both know which channels to switch to when, and they do it simultaneously.
They know this because there are two long rolls of punched paper, one for the mother ship and one for the torpedo, and little mini “player pianos” in each device to read the rolls. You can see their figure for the apparatus in the image above.
This isn’t quite as outlandish as it may first sound. When I worked for Lockheed Martin Astronautics in the 1990s, one system in fact used punched cards for security codes. In a rocket, flipping just two digits can cause a multi-million dollar disaster, and no one wanted to change the cards for these new-fangled transistor-based systems. Lamarr and Anthiel’s mechanical mini-player piano system was never used by the military.
Moreover, no one is suggesting that modern Wi-Fi uses rolls of punched paper. Clearly, it doesn’t. When they claim that Lamarr “made” Wi-Fi, what they mean is that she invented the idea of frequency hopping, that is, the act of quickly switching from channel to channel, to fool the enemy.
But, again, she didn’t.
First, it’s important to understand what Wi-Fi is and what it isn’t. Wi-Fi is not a social media platform like Twitter or Facebook. It isn’t a computer manufacturer like Apple. It is a communication protocol that enables devices to communicate with each other wirelessly over short distances. It specifies things like what frequencies to use, how to transmit the information, and how to do basic housekeeping stuff like making a connection. When my daughters wail that “the Wi-Fi is down,” what they really mean is that the Huawei modem that uses Wi-Fi to talk to their Apple smartphones and Lenovo laptops is not doing its job, although usually the real culprit turns out to be our broadband provider.
When the Internet is up, Huawei, Lenovo, and Apple devices can use Wi-Fi to communicate because how Wi-Fi works has been published in a series of public documents called specifications. There has been more than one specification for Wi-Fi released over the years. So the technology that Wi-Fi uses depends on which specification you are talking about.
An early version of Wi-Fi did use frequency hopping, but this approach was abandoned because the transmission rate was slow, although legacy systems still exist (and it turns out, are not very secure after all). In contrast, the 1999 Wi-Fi based on IEEE 802.11b uses a coding that is called direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS), where frequencies are shifted more quickly than a single bit of information is transmitted: this makes the signal look like noise unless you know the exact sequence of shifting frequencies ahead of time.
So far so good: this does sound a bit like Lamarr and Antheil’s system, but there are important differences. For instance, the switching is much faster than Lamarr and Antheil likely envisaged. More importantly, DSSS does not use little synchronized player-piano mechanisms in the transmitter and receiver. Instead, it uses a signal-processing operation called correlation (which is not the same thing as statistical correlation) that doesn’t need precise synchronization.
If we’re going to look for the inventor of DSSS, Dr. Gustav Guanella filed a Swiss patent in 1942 and US patent US2405500 in 1946. In it, he mentions that frequency hopping to scramble systems is already well known, but relying on mechanical devices is impractical. He then goes on to describe something much closer to the DSSS scheme than Lamarr and Antheil’s system. So by that reasoning, it should probably be Dr. Guanella’s photo at the bottom of the Facebook meme instead of Lamarr’s.
The truth is that frequency hopping has been invented, described, or considered over and over again throughout the 20th century. In 2019, writer and physicist Tony Rothman and electrical engineer Glenn Babecki examined patents about frequency hopping in radio. Their aim was to determine whether the claims that Lamarr invented frequency hopping were valid. In fact, they found patent after patent predating Lamarr and Anthiel’s work — by Purlington (in 1940 and 1935); by Broeterjes in 1929; by Chaffee in 1922; by Blackwell, Martin, and Vernam in 1926 — going back to the very dawn of radio with Tesla’s patent in 1903.
They further found indications that frequency hopping was considered a well-known technique among German radio engineers. Lamarr fans will recall that she was married to an Austrian weapons manufacturer before the war, and had access to and interest in his work. It is not inconceivable that she was aware the idea from one of his engineers at a technical meeting.
The upshot is that the idea of frequency hopping is reasonably obvious (making it work in practice is much less obvious). It’s pretty cool that a movie star also thought it up (or pinched it from her ex-husband), but it definitely doesn’t make her a science genius.
And here’s the kicker, most Wi-Fi doesn’t actually use DSSS anymore. Specifications 802.11a, Wi-Fi 4, 5, and 6 use a method called orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM). In OFDM, there’s no frequency hopping. Instead, multiple frequencies are continually used, broadcasting information over many channels.
So Hedy Lamarr wasn’t involved in the development of the Wi-Fi protocol, she wasn’t the first to think up frequency hopping, and frequency hopping isn’t used in modern Wi-Fi in any case. Why is this meme so popular? Why is it taken at face value by so many intelligent people who otherwise care about the truth of what they say?
To be fair, it sounds quite plausible. Recent re-assessments of history have revealed that the contributions of scientists like astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell and chemist Rosalind Franklin were frequently undervalued. But it doesn’t follow that every woman’s contribution to science was undervalued. Hedy Lamarr’s exaggerated contribution to Wi-Fi is a particular case in point.
The comments section under the Facebook meme is a depressing place; facts are few and emotions are high. Unfounded claims about what she invented abound (“And sonar!” “And cell phones!”), and detailed attempts to set the record straight are attacked (“Is the term “mansplainer” new to you?” “…no one wants to hear his white guy rescue of all their credit for everything…” “Sour grapes in a box.”).
But maybe consider this: I am a woman with a degree in electrical engineering and a PhD in information systems, I believe strongly in the value and promotion of women in STEM, I have evaluated the claims using original documents, and I am still saying Hedy Lamarr had almost nothing to do with Wi-Fi.
The unvarnished reality is this. With few exceptions, women’s historical contributions to science and technology are underwhelming. This is because the barriers (access to education, childcare, and fair pay) were overwhelming. It wasn’t that long ago that women were almost universally believed to be intellectually inferior men. I remember the tail end of those days pretty keenly, and am deeply thankful that public opinion has substantially changed since.
And there is more good news. If many of the barriers to participation are removed, it turns out that women can be brilliant at science and technology. Women my age and younger are now making good careers for themselves, and some of them are reaching the top of their fields.
Take Professor Anja Feldman of Technische Universität Berlin, for example, who won the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize and whose research articles have been cited nearly 20,000 times. Or Dr. Andrea Goldsmith of Stanford University, who has 70,000 citations and written three textbooks on wireless communications. Or Dina Papagiannaki, who is the Director of Engineering at Microsoft Azure.
These are just a few of the researchers and engineers in networking (the research area that includes Wi-Fi). Let’s not forget that there are even a few modern Hollywood actors with science degrees, like Danica McKellar (mathematics) and Mayim Bialik (neuroscience).
Women are brilliant at science and technology, and there is an abundance of evidence to support this fact. It isn’t necessary to spread lies about Golden-Age Hollywood movie stars to prove it.