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Gender parity in patents: Hedy Lamarr’s frequency hopping

Today we continue our look at the contributions of female inventors to our collective intellectual property in the spirit of this year’s World Intellectual Property Day theme honoring female innovation. As the day approaches on April 26, our focus here will remain on this important subject. 

Imagine the scientific complexity of the Global System for Mobile or “GSM” cellular communication system. According to Electronics Notes, GSM is in use by more than 1.2 billion mobile phone subscribers around the globe.

The science behind GSM is rooted in U.S. patent number 2,292,387, granted in 1941 to Austrian-born film actor Hedy Lamarr, known at that time as Hedy Kiesler Markey, and to her neighbor George Antheil, a concert pianist and composer. Perhaps known more for her beauty, Lamarr had a brilliant idea for a radio transmission system that used “frequency hopping” as the basis for military and civilian communications systems in use today. 

Hopping frequencies 

Her idea was that radio signals would be harder to ascertain and then jam if their frequencies were irregular and random, known as “hopping.” The original invention relied on frequencies based on the piano’s 88 keys. The inventors did not make any money from their invention, but the U.S. military used the idea for so-called “spread spectrum” communications during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the patent formed the basis of later patents. 

Scientific organizations eventually honored her contributions. For example, she was the first female recipient of the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award from the Invention Convention. 

Support for female inventors 

Hedy Lamarr did not have scientific training, yet using her keen intelligence and creativity, she made significant inventive contributions that we rely on widely today. 

We recently posted here about the need for girls and women to study STEM subjects, given the disproportionate number of patents granted to men as compared with those to woman inventors. Imagine what else Lamarr might have been able to contribute had she had the opportunity to immerse herself in the study of math and science.

 

 

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