Who Invented WiFi? (not Hedy Lamarr!)

A few years back, someone found out that actress Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor, and one of the projects she worked on later led to the creation of Wi-Fi. It’s a good headline “Hollywood Actress Invented Wi-Fi.” I saw a documentary about her life, and the story is not that simple. She didn’t really invent Wi-Fi per se. So…

Who Created Wi-Fi?

First, what is Wi-Fi? Here is the definition I found on the Verizon website:

Wi-Fi is the radio signal sent from a wireless router to a nearby device, which translates the signal into data you can see and use. The device transmits a radio signal back to the router, which connects to the internet by wire or cable.

Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity. The non-profit Wi-Fi Alliance trademarked the name Wi-Fi and promoted the technology. Products that are “Wi-Fi Certified” have been fully certified following the interoperability requirements selected by the organization. It’s a technology that is standardized for wireless local area networks in the 2.4, 3.6, and 5 GHz frequency bands using IEEE 802.11 standards. And it works well for everybody as you are probably connected to the internet without a wire (also, who invented the internet?).

Wi-Fi certified by Wi-Fi Alliance

Multiple names have been attached to the invention of Wi-Fi, but Dr. John O’Sullivan was clearly the brain behind it. This Australian engineer led the team working at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) behind the 1996 patent about the use of the spread spectrum radio technology for reducing multipath interference of radio signals transmitted for computer networking—a patent indispensable to the 802.11 standards. They work in radio astronomy, trying to fix the problem of radio waves bouncing off surfaces indoors, causing an echo that distorts the signal (as phys.org explained it).

Dr. O’Sullivan’s team was also behind the first “high rate wireless”—the technology allowing transmission speeds of 11 Mbit/s. Other CSIRO scientists worked on the first prototype outdoor wireless access point. In 1999, CSIRO worked with Intel Corporation and Lucent Technologies Bell Labs to write the specification for a wireless local area network (LAN).

It is also known that Vic Hayes has been called the “father of Wi-Fi.” This distinction came from his work on the IEEE committee that created the 802.11 standards in 1997. He established the standards without which Wi-Fi was not feasible.

What about Hedy Lamarr’s invention of Wi-Fi?

It’s true that Hedy Lamarr who was called at one point “the most beautiful woman in the world” also had a mind for invention. She helped Howard Hughes change the design of his airplanes, she developed a way to improve traffic stoplights and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink.

During World War II, she wanted to help the war effort and worked with her friend composer and pianist George Antheil to develop a device that could change the way torpedoes were controlled. At that time, the technology that was in use could be jammed. This led the duo to synchronize a player-piano mechanism with radio signals. The result was known as a frequency-hopping system. They even patented it, but it was not used then. Later though, in the 1950s, their idea was finally explored by the US Navy, but the patent had expired.

Hedy Lamarr in “Bombshell” documentary.

The truth is that Nikola Tesla was the first to introduce the concept of frequency hopping in a way (nothing came of it in 1903). German radio pioneer Jonathan Zenneck did it too in 1915 and even used his concept during World War I to prevent the British forces to listen to part of the German’s communications. Polish inventor Leonard Danilewicz also worked on the idea during the 1930s.

Finally, American entrepreneur Ray Zinn was the one who developed a method using frequency hopping and sweep modes in order to allow radio devices to operate without the need to synchronize a receiver with a transmitter.

So no, Hedy Lamarr didn’t invent Wi-Fi, but she worked on a concept that was the ancestor of the wireless technology that led to Wi-Fi.

To go on the web, you need an operating system! I wrote an article about the first ones.

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