Innovation Lessons from Hedy Lamarr

Every time you use wi-fi, bluetooth, a cordless phone (including mobiles), GPS or anything with an RFID tag, you’re using a technology called spread spectrum radio. The first version of spread spectrum was invented during World War II as a method for controlling torpedos using rapidly changing radio frequency to control their direction in a way that couldn’t be jammed. It was invented by the composer George Antheil and the actor Hedy Lamarr.

That’s Hedy Lamarr:

not Hedley Lamarr:

The story of the invention is told by Richard Rhodes in Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, which is well worth the read.

The story includes several important innovation lessons, including:

  • Connecting ideas is the fundamental creative act of innovation: Rhodes interviewed Neno Amarena an engineer that discussed Lamarr’s inventive work with her in later years:

    “More often than not,” he told me, “the inventive process follows a cascade of ideas and thoughts interconnected from previous concepts that for the most part lie separate, unconnected and unrelated. It takes a clear state of mind, which is usually someone thinking ‘outside the box,’ to suddenly or serendipitously see the connected between the unrelated concepts and put it all together to create something new.” In that regard, the process of invention is no different from the creative process in other fields. Scientific discovery proceeds the same way. So do painting and sculpture. So does creative writing. The results are different, because each process operates on different realities and by different rules.

    That’s just a beautiful passage, which captures things perfectly.

  • Innovation is a process: coming up with a great idea isn’t enough to innovate. You also have to select which ideas to pursue, you have to make them work, and you have to get them to spread. Lamarr and Antheil did all of the first three things brilliantly, but they fell over on the last bit. They figured out how to make spread spectrum work through frequency hopping, and were granted a patent for that. However, they couldn’t get the US Navy to adopt their idea. The donated the patent to the Navy, where it sat for about 20 years. It wasn’t until the 1980s that people started to realise what Lamarr and Antheil had accomplished. Which leads to the third point –
  • Ideas spread slowly: and they can be ahead of their time. We like to think that the value of an idea is self-evident. This often isn’t true, and even when it is, that doesn’t mean that people will adopt it. In addition, you can be ahead of your time technologically. According to Rhodes, that seemed to be the case here:

    “Lamarr and Antheil,” Price writes, “seem… to have been more than a score of years ahead of their time, considering that [frequency hopping] evidently was not used operationally against intentional jamming until [1963].”

    You have to fight to get your ideas to spread, and this is a crucial part of the innovation process.

There’s also one last point that is easy to overlook: Lamarr and Antheil invented this breakthrough technology in their spare time. She was busy becoming a movie star, and he was writing symphonies while they worked out how to turn frequency hopping into a functional idea. A frequent excuse for not innovating is “I don’t have enough time.” But you do. Find the time, and use it.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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