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Hedy Lamarr (wikipedia.org)
38 points by boshomi on Feb 12, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 18 comments

Sometimes its hard to know what to believe. On the surface, this sounds like a pretty plausible argument that her contributions leading to WiFi is almost entirely a clickbait invention


There's a tendency to credit some singular person for an invention like TV, the steam engine, etc. The reality is usually a lot messier in that there is usually prior art, variations that didn't work as well, predecessors of various sorts, etc. But we like having a nice simple trivia night answer.

Yes, it was an abstraction of a completely different use case into something never thought before. [1]

[1] »Player Pianos, Sex Appeal, and Patent #2,292,387» ELIZA SCHMIDKUNZ 2006/09 (in Inside GNSS) https://web.archive.org/web/20160827181419/http://www.inside...

Fun trivia not mentioned on that page: in Half Life 2, the scientist's pet headcrab Lamarr is named after Hedy Lamarr and is referred to as "Hedy" at one point... "There's only one Hedy"

That's Hedley!

Hah! I recognize that reference, too bad it's totally off topic.


Gender is not relevant, unless it is. People need to see folks like themselves represented, and downplaying gender as "not relevant" dismisses the very real effect this can have. Are her achievements awesome because she's a woman? No, of course not -- they're awesome for their own merits. But if one woman sees this and gets inspired by it, that's awesome.

Whether gender is relevant is not a normative question but an empirical question. Given that women were, for centuries, barred from obtaining education and then nudged away from science more than men, it is a very simple empirical fact that gender is relevant. I think it shouldn't be, and hopefully someday it won't be, but it is.

I assume the title is such as yesterday was women in science day.

The gender doesn't seem relevant here, unless you think it's unusual for women to invent things. It's quite interesting for someone to be both an actor and an inventor in weapons research, though.

The most annoying thing about the titles is that it was changed (against Hacker News guidelines) specifically to insert that, giving the whole thing a clickbaity edge.


I think the gender really is key here, since Heddy's sole contribution was co-authoring a single patent to use piano rolls to generate coded messages. I guess you can call this "weapons research" in the sense that cryptography is sometimes considered munitions. But it wasn't very good cryptography and didn't end up being used, so I don't think anyone would care about this except for Heddy being turned into a type of "women in science" icon, with people then claiming that the piano roll was really spread spectrum, so Heddy invented spread spectrum, and others claiming that the piano roll meant she invented GPS, cell phones, etc. It's really out of control.

This is unfortunate as there are many accomplished women in science who are real scientists and who made real contributions, but are not well known because there is no Hollywood star angle to tie in, just actual science. For example my favorite female researcher would have to be Karen Uhlenbeck, whom no one in popular culture has heard of, but who was (IMO) the most brilliant female mathematician of the last 100 hundred years. There are many such examples of unknown women scientists if we look for real inventors and real scientists, rather than looking for someone "sexy" to make into an icon for our favorite causes.

It was using piano rolls to control frequency hopping, not as cryptography. The intent was to make radio-controlled torpedoes more difficult to jam. That's far more munitions than just "cryptography is munitions".

In modern parlance, it's not munitions at all. But yes, Antheil and Lamarr's proposed device was trying to hide the signal so that it would be harder to jam by hopping along one of 88 frequencies which were marked in the piano roll.

This is a form of cryptography. Any algorithm meant to authenticate, sign, or hide information is cryptography, and any attempt to break such techniques is cryptanalysis. Currently we do not like to think of cryptography as munitions due to the crypto wars of the 90s. But however you fall on that debate of whether cryptography is munitions, it is misleading to consider someone volunteering their time in an unprofessional capacity to send an unsolicited patent to the Navy, which the Navy rejected, as being equal to working in "munitions research"

> Karen Uhlenbeck, whom no one has heard of, but who was...

Not sure what you mean: she's pretty famous from having won the Abel Prize (and being the first woman to do so).

Right, in the scientific community, but not many people know about the Abel prize or have heard of Uhlenbeck's bubbling results.

That's fair point. I interpreted your comment to mean that she was unduly unrecognized in the academic world, but I agree that venturing out into the wider world, she's probably not well known at all.

Correct, Uhlenbeck was given the proper recognition in the mathematical community, but people outside that community don't know her. She is not an icon for Women in Science and neither is someone like Emmy Noether, or even in the world of cryptography, someone like Shafi Goldwasser -- they are all unknown.

But instead an actress with zero scientific research publications, no PhD, and just this one piano roll patent that she sent, unsolicited, to the Navy which rejected it -- she is high on the marquee for "women in science". That's a shame.

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