She is best known as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” but the late silver screen star Hedy Lamarr is remembered in some circles more for the inventive genius she brought to wireless communications, decades before its time.
Lamarr was an immigrant from pre-World War II Austria. She left behind a life that had included a rocky marriage to a wealthy munitions tycoon to pursue a dream of acting in Hollywood. She soon became a screen icon, but Lamarr was a whole-brain thinker whose intellectual curiosity craved more than simply expressing her creativity through acting. A chance dinner party conversation with composer George Antheil–another whole-brain thinker–about the rising power of Nazi Germany and the terror German submarines were posing to Atlantic ship traffic sparked a creative insight in Lamarr that would eventually lead to U.S. Patent Number 2,292,387, a patent on a “secret communications system.”
Lamarr was a seasoned dinner-table listener; that art had helped her gain some understanding of torpedo technology from that tycoon husband of hers, who among other things had sold munitions to Benito Mussolini. Lamarr knew that radio technology could improve torpedo guidance, but she also knew that radio communication can be easily intercepted or interfered with. So she and Antheil sketched out a system in which signals bounce from frequency to frequency in split-second intervals, with only sender and recipient knowing on what frequency to pick up each portion of the message. Outsiders could only obtain or block tiny portions of the overall signal. This breakthrough in communications technology is a precursor to the spread-spectrum radio technology that powers our cell phone conversations and GPS tracking.
Now this patent didn’t lead Lamarr to become a wireless technology titan. To begin with, the patent she shared with Antheil was quickly deemed top secret by a U.S. government now at war with Germany. But she was also too far ahead of her time. It would take decades for transistor technology to advance sufficiently to make practical use of spread-spectrum technology, and by then her patent was part of the public domain. But she has not been forgotten.
On May 21st I will be present when Ms. Lamarr is posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which honors the greatest inventive minds in history and is a partnership of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the innovative nonprofit Invent Now. She is one of fifteen members of the 2014 induction class; you can read all of their stories on the Hall of Fame website, and more about the patent office’s partnership with Invent Now on the agency’s website.
I’ve written before about the power of whole-brain thinking among creatives, most recently how Albert Einstein embraced the violin as a muse. More than three years ago I wrote a post titled “Creatives With Multiple Talents,” about how common it is for creative thinkers to have what creativity expert Douglas Eby and K-12 education specialist Tamara Fisher call “multipotentiality.” That post remains popular on my site to this day, perhaps in part because Eby later cited it in one of his books.
That post focused on creatives having what some would call multiple right-brain talents, in other words different forms of artistic expression. Those determined to view creative thinking as being hemisphere-specific likely would consider the scenario Lamarr sketched out in her patent application a product of her left brain. Readers of this blog know better. The engine that powers our multiple potentials is our entire brain, and the fuel is a combination of curiosity and a resistance to conventional thinking.
There will be many living inductees at the 2014 National Inventors Hall of Fame induction dinner. I know from past experience that the conversations at these events–which feature many past inductees as well–are stimulating, mind-expanding and unforgettable. That’s what happens when you gather a bunch of whole-brain, curious and unconventional thinkers in one room. Perhaps a dinner table conversation will produce a spark like the one Lamarr had at that 1940 Hollywood dinner, and we’ll see a new patent issued in a few years resulting from that conversation. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me.
Here’s a taste of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in a short video: