WiFi & Wireless comms: Episode 4 of Setapp’s original Ahead of Its Time Podcast

17 min read

Welcome to the fourth episode of Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. 

In this episode, the filmmaker Alexandra Dean relays a phenomenal story of one Hollywood actress who pioneered WiFi back in the 1940s. Her name was Hedy Lamarr and her goal was to build a wireless device that would help allied torpedos destroy Nazi submarines.  

Although the world preferred to recognize Hedy Lamarr as a beautiful actress rather than an inventor, Harald Haas put her legacy to great use 70 years later. In this episode, you’ll hear how Lamarr’s breakthrough helped Haas discover how to transmit data using light. 

Show notes: 


Julia Furlan (00:03):

Just because you can't see something, doesn't mean it's not there. And sometimes something that you can't see might still be something you use every day. Right now, whether you're sitting on your couch or on your way to work, there are likely dozens of invisible WiFi signals all around you. And we depend on these WiFi networks more and more, every year as more and more of our devices get connected to the internet. I use WiFi for pretty standard things like work and to keep in touch with my family. But I also use it to watch Netflix on my TV, listen to music on my smart speakers and play video games with my friends. But there are lots of people who have way more internet devices connected to their WiFi network than me. There are locks, doorbells, kitchen appliances, security cameras. The list goes on with more than 20 billion connected wireless devices in the world today, it's safe to say WiFi technology is pretty much everywhere and all those devices use a lot of data.

Julia Furlan (01:02):

The average American household uses about 350 gigabytes a month. That's enough to stream about 70 movies. It's weird to think that all that data is coming from a small black box with a few blinking lights. But what if we didn't get our data from WiFi routers? What if instead, we got it from light bulbs, light bulbs we already have in our homes in schools, in street lights and in our offices?

Harald Haas (01:31):

We coined it LiFi because we wanted to really build wireless networks with light.

Julia Furlan (01:36):

This is Harald Haas. He's reinventing wireless communication by turning light bulbs into wireless transmitters, or as he calls it LiFi. LiFi could completely transform how we send and receive data. It has the potential to be more than 100 times faster than WiFi. And with more than 14 billion, LED light bulbs on the planet, there are plenty of devices out there right now that could help transmit the ever in increasing mountain of digital information we generate. Harald's technology is built on the foundations of WiFi. In its current form, WiFi has only been around since the nineties, but its foundations stretch back much further.

Harald Haas (02:19):

She was the most beautiful actress at her time and did wonderful films.

Julia Furlan (02:23):

They go back to an inventor who until quite recently was better known for her beauty.

Harald Haas (02:28):

People like Hedy Lamarr must be on the same level as Tesla and other big geniuses. Just fantastic. And we have embraced her frequency hopping technique as well. She did the math, did all the scientific studies, developed a prototype with a one of her supporters and showed it to the world. Just brilliant.

Julia Furlan (02:50):

Hedy Lamarr was one of Hollywood's great leading ladies. And it was her frequency hopping technology, first created to give the U.S. an edge in submarine warfare, which eventually became the basis for our beloved WiFi. But in the 1940s, the world was more interested in what she was wearing than what she was thinking. 

I'm Julia Furlan and this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp, a show about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. Setapp's versatile app subscription service empowers you to step into a new era of productivity.

Julia Furlan (03:32):

Almost 70 years before Harald Haas began researching how he would use light for wireless communication. Hedy Lamarr had already established herself as a Hollywood star, but Hedy was leading a secret second life. One day Hedy was on set, hanging out in her trailer between scenes at MGM, the biggest film studio in the world at the time and the press unknowingly got a glimpse into Hedy's second life when they popped by her trailer.

Alexandra Dean (03:58):

And so they would come and interview you and photos of behind the scenes on set and Hedy Lamarr's seen in one of these photos on the MGM set with this crazy kind of invention setup.

Julia Furlan (04:09):

This is Alexandra Dean. She's the writer and director of the great film, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.

Alexandra Dean (04:16):

And it's in her trailer. And there are like some test tubes and there are other sort of machinery. And it seems that she was inventing there behind the scenes at MGM. And for the longest time, nobody knew what the hell that photo was.

Julia Furlan (04:31):

It was Hedy's good fortune that she met a famous film director and business magnate who shared her obsession with invention.

Alexandra Dean (04:38):

Howard Hughes had met her and recognized another inventive mind and had said, "Here you take this trailer full of inventing equipment and you go ahead and pursue your dreams."

Julia Furlan (04:50):

Hold that thought for a moment. And let's take a brief tour of how a 25 year old Hollywood star came to moonlight as one of the 20th century great inventors. Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. She grew up in Vienna, which was a center of creativity, music, and invention. And being a young girl in such a place sparked her curiosity about how things worked. When her father gave her a music box, she took it apart because she wanted to understand what made it play? She was only five years old. As she grew up and her talents in the arts and sciences blossomed. She saw two futures unfold in front of her. She could do the science thing or she could be an actress.

Alexandra Dean (05:37):

And then this thing happens. This great massive thing happens in her life. And that is that she becomes extraordinarily jaw droppingly, beautiful.

Julia Furlan (05:48):

A career in film provided the path of least resistance for Hedy. So in 1930, at just 15 years old, she dropped out of school and began landing a string of impressive screen rolls. But things quickly took a turn for the worst for Hedy. Hitler, publicly denounced and banned her 1933 film Ecstasy because she was Jewish. Then feeling the pressure of the Great Depression like so many others at the time, Hedy's father lost his job, but Hedy's parent has believed her marriage to a respectable businessman might solve the family's problems.

Alexandra Dean (06:22):

And along came this munitions manufacturer, this warlike figure, Fritz Mandl. Fritz Mandl was a real God of war. He was ready to like give weapons to whomever wanted them. And he was Jewish himself, but he was working with Hitler and he was working with Mussolini and Hedy didn't know any of that. At the time, he was just a handsome Jewish suitor who came along and swept her off her feet and offered her father a job when nobody else would and seemed like a really good candidate for marriage. So she married him.

Julia Furlan (06:57):

But it wasn't long until newlywed Heady got an inside perspective on the growing Nazi war machine.

Alexandra Dean (07:03):

And then she sat at his dinner table while all of the great armament manufacturers of Europe showed up to dinner. And she sat there listening to all of them talk about their problems on the eve of the second world war. And what were there problems? There were things like not being able to figure out how to stop a torpedo from chasing down your submarine or your boat or your fleet of boats. And so there was a race to do that, and everybody wanted to control the Atlantic waters.

Julia Furlan (07:33):

A growing concern in the munitions business at the time was torpedo technology. Once it launched the attacking ship, guided the torpedo, using a radio signal, but the trouble with that was that there was nothing to stop the enemy from jamming the signal. Even worse enemy forces could also hack the signal and return the torpedo to its sender. As the men pondered all of this, the gears clicked wildly between the ears of Hedy Lamarr.

Alexandra Dean (08:01):

Hedy Lamarr is listening to this and her inventive mind is kicking back into gear and she's thinking about it and she's thinking about it. And then as the war approaches, she realizes I am Jewish. I have to get out of here. So she flees in the middle of the night. She flees the unhappy marriage and she goes overnight. She gets out of Vienna. She goes to Paris. She goes to London. She gets on a ship to America.

Julia Furlan (08:29):

On board the ship Hedy meets MGM movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, who is on his way home from Europe, where he's been searching for Hollywood's next big actress.

Alexandra Dean (08:39):

And by the time she gets off the ship, she's been made over by the costume people who are on board the ship as well. And she's in a beautiful couture suit. And she is presented to the photographers waiting on the dock as their new starlet Hedy Lamarr.

Julia Furlan (09:02):

When Hedy gets to America in 1938, Mayer begins promoting her as the most beautiful woman in the world. By September 1940, Hedy Lamarr was a bonafide movie star with hits like Algiers with Charles Boyer and Boom Town with Clark Gable. For Hedy, like so many Europeans, her mind was never far from the war. And for her, it was getting personal.

Julia Furlan (09:31):

As World War II raged, a newsreel announced the latest tragedy.

Speaker 4 (09:42):

A spotter sites an undersea raider.

Alexandra Dean (09:42):

There was a ship that was crossing from England to the United States and the Germans torpedo it.

Julia Furlan (09:49):

The ship in question was the City of Benares. It was evacuating passengers from England, many of them children, as German bombers attacked at cities.

Alexandra Dean (10:00):

And many, many children on board were killed and Hedy Lamarr's heart broke to hear that. She knew she had to bring her own mother who was sheltering in England at the time to safety in the United States. And I think she heard about that ship and she thought, "If the German torpedoes are getting that good at blowing up our ships, my mother's never going to come here to safety."

Julia Furlan (10:22):

What set Hedy Lamarr apart was her belief that she could do something about it.

Alexandra Dean (10:28):

And I think that's when she started spending every night on this invention.

Julia Furlan (10:35):

So many great inventors will tell you that they have that light bulb moment when they come up with a great idea. For Hedy Lamarr, hers came soon after she purchased one of the first wireless remote controls, allowing her to change channels on her radio from across the room. This odd looking box with a dial became an inspiration.

Alexandra Dean (10:55):

Why? Because she was sitting on her bed, I think, just changing the channel on her radio when she got this new gadget and thinking about that problem the Germans had, how to make their torpedoes inviolable. And there it was in her hand, she was shifting channels. Just change the channels. Remote control torpedoes, where the signal is shifting channels, constantly, remotely, that concept comes from Hedy Lamarr.

Julia Furlan (11:24):

It was dubbed "Frequency Hopping" by rapidly shifting the radio frequency, a ship and its torpedo are using to communicate. The signal would become impossible to jam or hack. And while Hedy had the idea, her friend, George Anthiel, helped implement it. George Anthiel was known as a loud, avant garde, bad boy pianist who critics said hit the piano instead of playing it. In fact, much to his delight, a riot broke out at one of his performances in 1926, that resulted in the arrests of a bunch of people at the concert hall. It was George's idea to build a frequency hopping device based on player piano technology.

Julia Furlan (12:04):

When a player piano starts playing a song, it's reading a little perforated roll of music paper that tells it which notes to play. Each hole in the role is a note, or as George Anithiel saw it, a frequency. Maybe you can see where I'm going here, a ship and its torpedo would be fitted with identical player piano-like music roles. When the torpedo is launched, both roles start turning at the same speed, which secretly communicate the same pattern of frequencies, an uncrackable communication system. They got a patent and the two donated their invention to the U.S. Government.

Alexandra Dean (12:41):

The war department does not take their idea seriously at all. And to be fair, imagine being those war department gentlemen, because they were all men, white men at that time. They get this patent application from a Hollywood actress, who at that time was starring in films with all the major actors of the day, and a pianist. Both of whom have left school at 15 years old and have no further education and they don't take it very seriously. They just did not believe that a woman famous for being beautiful could possibly have that kind of brain. I mean that bias was overwhelming.

Julia Furlan (13:19):

20 years passed and by 1960, the U.S. military began to see the genius of this invention. Without a word to its inventors it was deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, not for torpedoes, but for encrypted communication between ships. Frequency hopping was used for sonar and later during the Vietnam War, to guide missiles launched from planes and helicopters.

Alexandra Dean (13:41):

And suddenly her invention was being used all over the place by the military and Hedy noticed this. And she found somebody in the war department to ask about this.

Julia Furlan (13:53):

And Hedy began asking the military why she was never paid for the use of the patent.

Alexandra Dean (13:57):

It was impossible to know definitively why she wasn't paid for the patent, but there are clues. And one of the greatest clues we have is that there is some paperwork that basically proves that Hedy Lamarr's patent wasn't considered her property during the second World War because she was an enemy alien. She was from Vienna and the Viennese were the enemy. And so anything of hers that she donated to the war department could be confiscated.

Julia Furlan (14:33):

In her later years, Hedy Lamarr turned her innovative mind to fighting off old age. She collaborated with doctors and pioneered new methods in plastic surgery, but a series of procedures, each correcting flaws from the last robbed her of her beauty. Her mental health was quickly deteriorating and she eventually became a recluse. Then in 1997, 3 years before her death, came the beginning of a legacy that had escaped her for nearly six decades. Hedy's son, Anthony Loder, campaigned to tell the world of his mother's genius for invention. Forbes picked up the story. Articles were written, then books, Hedy Lamarr lived just long enough to see the world begin to recognize her as an inventor. When she died in 2000, frequency hopping technology was making all kinds of innovations possible GPS, Bluetooth. And of course our beloved WiFi.

Harald Haas (15:27):

WiFi is wireless connectivity with radio waves. We don't have any wires connecting to our smartphone or our computer, is radio waves that send digital data streams through the internet and also receive the internet via a invisible radio link communication. So LiFi is also wireless connectivity, but not using the radio waves, but using light waves.

Julia Furlan (16:02):

Harald Haas has created LiFi in response to a growing problem, spectrum crunch. Once upon a time, the RF spectrum or radio frequency spectrum had lots of room for all the data that we needed to transmit, but that changed in the early 2000s when the first smartphones hit the market.

Harald Haas (16:20):

And consequence of this is if now computing becomes mobile, the internet becomes mobile. Then you need a lot of resources. Imagine all the YouTube videos that are downloaded and uploaded, all the video content that suddenly was transmitted and that required data rate, that required speed in spectrum.

Julia Furlan (16:41):

As we connect more and more devices to the internet, the heavy growing demand for data leaves less and less room on the RF spectrum. It's like a water pipe when a little water flows through it, you're good, but once massive amounts flow through it under serious pressure, something's got to give. So that got Harald thinking. Suppose, in addition to using radio signals to transmit data between devices like we do with WiFi, what if we could also use light? If we could figure out a way to do that, then we could more than solve the spectrum crunch problem. He developed the idea while working as an engineer in the late nineties, as Japanese researchers were helping to prove that light could be used to transmit data. So he and his team built a prototype and began showing it to entrepreneurs and academics, which caught the attention of the TED conferences.

Harald Haas (17:32):

Then they sent me an email. If I wanted demonstrated to TED Global.

Julia Furlan (17:37):

Harald was unfamiliar with TED and his family was packed and ready to leave on an Easter holiday. He was about to delete the email when he decided to investigate.

Harald Haas (17:48):

The more and more I dug into what TED means, the more and more I got frightened. I created my first presentation, a classic academic presentation with the equations inside. And when I sent it to the creator there, TED creator and they come back and say, no, no you can't. You can't, you can't present that. No, no, it's the wrong level. And I said, can I take a video and present it at TED Global? And they said, no, no, no, no, no. There's, there's no way in TED you can present a video. People won't believe you. You need to demonstrate it on stage. Got another shower of adrenaline through the body when I heard that.

Julia Furlan (18:27):

For an engineer who's not really into of public speaking. Harald was much less stressed when developing a groundbreaking technology than when he was preparing his TED talk. Harald practiced for countless hours in the months leading up to his talk. He wrote out cue cards and rehearsed on weekends after work late into the evenings, then came the big day. And as the world watched, or at least that's how it felt to him, Harald Haas and his team set up their device. What the audience saw was a box platform, not much bigger than a bar stool. On top of it sat an ordinary metal desk lamp with an unusual looking bulb. So Harald was nearly ready to deliver his talk and then something went wrong.

Harald Haas (19:16):

And so we had that 15 minutes to set it up. The postdoc at that time helped me. And then he set it all up and he started sweating. I saw sweat coming down and he was in the behind that cabinet and basically running all sorts of checks and tests. And the people started already streaming into that big audience. There was a thousand people coming already in and my talk was due to start in minutes actually. And I said, "Is everything alright?" And he, he said, "It might not work." So he went and I had to start my talk. I must admit more nervous than at my wedding. I was super nervous, really super, super, super nervous. And I was left on a stage where you either make or break your career.

Julia Furlan (20:09):

What Harald and his team didn't know was that the instrument, the following speaker was set to demonstrate a laser shooting air piano was interfering with his live device.

Harald Haas (20:20):

Imagine sitting for a thousand people who have paid thousands of dollar to get in, you make a big splash about LiFi, how is going to change the world. And you turn on the switch. Nothing happens. Imagine that.

Julia Furlan (20:38):

In the back of his mind, Harald Haas could do nothing but imagine that running on muscle memory and adrenaline, he launched into his talk face to face with a thousand people. Each of them paying a thousand dollars to be wowed. The fateful moment came six minutes into the presentation. It was then Harald said, so what happens when I switch on the light? He tried hard to sound like he was sure. And then on went the lamp.

Harald Haas (21:05):

When I flicked the switch I turned around and I saw these flowers popping up out of nowhere. And showing that video is now really being transmitted.

Julia Furlan (21:16):

Right on cue. Then Harald blocked the light with his hand and the video stopped when he removed his hand, the video resumed, the audience began applauding. They got the lesson. Data really was being streamed by a light bulb.

Harald Haas (21:33):

Where I got goosebumps is when people stood up in clad was getting standing ovation from people. And that was absolutely magnificent. And I right afterwards, I had an interview with the New York Times and Times Magazine came and they declared that's one of the 50 best inventions in 2011.

Julia Furlan (21:52):

And no wonder given the potential benefits of LiFi. First, it enhances speed and bandwidth. And unlike radio frequencies light is free to use and doesn't need government regulation. Because light doesn't penetrate solid surfaces like radio waves, LiFi signals, can't be easily intercepted or hacked. In 2012, Harald started his own company called Pure LiFi. And it turns out there are some similarities between being an academic and running your own business. Education is at the center of both.

Harald Haas (22:23):

But with a new technology, you say, what is this that? What's LiFi? Why do you need it? There's a lot of education that was necessary in order to educate the markets, to show them there's this huge spectrum. There's the way you can create gigabit wireless networks. And now we are going into terror bit wireless networks with light, really a lot of education. And we always had to say, we are not replacing wifi. We are additive

Julia Furlan (22:49):

For Harald Hoss, living with one foot in the business world. And the other in academia has been stimulating.

Harald Haas (22:55):

I really, really enjoyed that living in two worlds because it opened my mind. And, and it's an academic. I have grown because I really understand the thinking of investors. I really understand the of businesses. I really understand that the brightest idea may not be the idea that may be successful in the future.

Julia Furlan (23:21):

Today, there are more than 200 LiFi pilot projects around the world. One of which is helping bring reliable internet to remote communities.

Harald Haas (23:30):

Connectivity in a digital world and access to the internet is as vital as getting you gas or your electricity into your homes. So we have engaged in a 5G project in the United Kingdom called 5G RuralFirst, where we deployed it at the remote island of Northern Scotland. And there's a particular sort of island there called Graemsay and it has a lighthouse. So we installed our technology on the lighthouse and beamed the internet down to neighboring houses. And we quadrupled the data rate to these houses in this pilot projects.

Julia Furlan (24:11):

Harald believes LiFi can help connect billions of people to the internet where WiFi infrastructure has been too costly to build, but there are many other applications as well. Other projects include installing LiFi in classroom ceiling lights, and soon it might be in the streetlights in busy urban areas. It's being tested in car headlights as a safety mechanism. So vehicles can communicate with each other on the road. It could also provide dependable connectivity on commercial flights and even be used during undersea exploration in depth that WiFi can't reach.

Harald Haas (24:44):

I see a tremendous opportunity for live, to be part of that game changing paradigm shift in our lives. And that's LiFi and building complete cellular networks with LiFi. It's our vision that we basically piggyback on existing lighting systems, because we have already a lot of light emitters in our homes, in our offices, in our manufacturing poles. And why not? If we have light there already, why not using the same light waste to also transmit gigabytes of data in the future? The light bulb will be in my view, the neuron of the brain of a smart house or smart city of an environment, that the reason why I'm saying this is a light bulb will be equipped with a computer like a smartphone is a computer. So it is a computer that we have in our ceiling in the future.

Julia Furlan (25:38):

Harald Haas is the product of a generation that can trace its mindset straight back to the life of Hedy Lamarr, who helped show the world that art and science are not mutually exclusive.

Harald Haas (25:49):

So you must have an artist let really be creative and think of how you can come up with a solution that's a certain effect for humanity.

Julia Furlan (26:03):

Since that day in her childhood, when she tinkered with that music box, Hedy Lamarr would discover over and over that the world rewards and punishes beauty on its own terms. Be a bombshell, be a Hollywood star, just stay in your lane. Don't play inventor. She rarely spoke of her invention until her life was nearly over, but she did articulate her in enduring determination through a poem she inscribed in a book that she gave to her son. This line, one of the most poignant in the poem seems as if it was written just for Hedy.

Speaker 5 (26:36):

"The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway."

Julia Furlan (26:52):

Alexandra Dean believes this provides a deep and rare insight into the life of Hedy Lamarr.

Alexandra Dean (26:59):

And it was a poem which was basically about doing it anyway. Even if you get kicked in the teeth, even if you feel like the world doesn't value you, if you feel like even your best efforts are not recognized, do it anyway. Do it anyway, because in the doing, you will find the meaning.

Julia Furlan (27:21):

I'm Julia Furlan. And this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp. Working on your next big thing? Setapp's productivity toolkit will help you stay focused and get stuff done. Head over to setapp.com to see if setapp can help you bring your ideas to life.

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