Since its conception in 1982, the Internet of Things (IoT) has grown to become one of the world’s most talked about technical innovations. Undoubtedly, in the not too distant future, the IoT will revolutionise the way services are delivered in the public sector.
Whether it’s adult social care, AI bots for local authority information delivery or making outreach services more accessible for rough sleepers, the only limitations to the possible use of the IoT in public service are set by human imagination.
However, while it may well be the future of our sector, the IoT is not a recent concept. Nor do the roots of its development rest in shallow ground.
In fact, the vision behind its development can be traced back to the late 1920s and it’s been developing and evolving ever since. The foundations of the technology required to bring the IoT to life also took shape long before Proctor and Gamble’s Kevin Ashton coined the phrase that’s now synonymous with the future of public sector service delivery.
Among those who first mobilised their ingenuity and vision to help set the wheels of IoT in motion were some remarkable and surprising people. Not least an unlikely female trailblazer helped sculpt the powerhouse of possibilities IoT it has become.
Once dubbed ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, 1940s screen siren, Hedy Lamarr, always regretted being more known for her face than for her intellect. Having starred in 30 films, alongside a host of Hollywood legends including Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, Lamarr could hardly be described as one to shy away from the limelight or the public adoration it afforded her. Despite this, she was acutely aware that her revered beauty was only skin deep and that it was her passion for inventing that afforded her life more substance and meaning.
“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” Lamarr once said. Whether or not one agrees with this sentiment, most people would concur that it takes a very special ‘girl’ to become a prolific and globally famous film actress while, at the same time, spearheading the development of wireless communications.
In 1942, together with co-inventor, the composer, George Antheil, Lamarr was awarded a patent for a ‘Secret Communications System’ the pair had developed in an attempt to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.
Lamarr had no formal engineering training but had recently escaped an unhappy marriage, in her native Austria, to one of Europe’s largest armaments manufacturers. During the oppressive union, Fritz Mandl, Lamarr’s possessive and overbearing husband and arms supplier to Hitler, had openly mused about weapons control systems with Lamarr. At the time, research was indicating that radio waves were better than wire for controlling weapons such as torpedoes and Lamarr had the necessary brain power to pick-up on the salient points.
For one thing, Mandl divulged, it was hard to make a wire long enough to ensure that the communications channel between a commander and a torpedo would not break, leaving the torpedo to chart its own course. Even at a length of ten miles, a wire would not be sufficiently long. Radio waves, he told her, solved this problem by eradicating the need for a physical communication connection between commander and torpedo. However, radio waves had a serious flaw in that enemies could access the same radio wave and jam it.
The significance of the invention wasn’t recognised for several decades and it wasn’t until the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, that Antheil and Lamarr’s ‘jamming proof’ technology was added to the radios of US naval ships. Subsequently, it has rolled-out into numerous military applications but the “spread spectrum” technology that Lamarr helped to invent is most significant for forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations, including IoT, possible.
Her other inventions, including a bouillon cube which – when added to water – was supposed to create a sparkling soda drink but, instead, (as Lamarr herself admitted) tasted like Alka Seltzer, were less impactful and her passion for engineering seemed to wane as her film career faded. Her last film was 1958’s The Female Animal, with Jane Powell and she gradually slipped wilfully into obscurity. Six times married, Lamarr was arrested (but not convicted) twice for shoplifting, once in 1966 and once in 1991. In 1981, with her eyesight failing, she retreated fully from public life and settled in Miami Beach, Florida, where on January 19t 2000, she died aged 86.
Lamarr’s innovation and insight are inspirational but where did that impetuous come from? Was it because her roots in adversity gave her an edge that preceded her time? Whatever enabled her to think so very far outside the box, Lamarr refused to conform to the narrow and constrained view of women’s potential to shape the world at that time. Depressingly, contemporary society still comes with a set of predefined archetypes women are supposed to adhere to. Despite a dramatic transformation in the digital landscape, women remain woefully unrepresented in technology, with only a tiny percentage working in IT.
Socitm is proud to be challenging this stereotype and, as such, it’s Leadership Academy runs Empowering Women in a Digital World (EWDW). Established in 2015/16 by Nadira Hussain, this ground-breaking programme is designed to enable women to exercise their leadership skills confidently, fearlessly and without boundaries irrespective of adversity and gendered criticism.
Hussain said: ‘We are so hugely proud of the Leadership Academy and the continued achievements and success that our participants are experiencing. It has been a pleasure to see the growth and development of women colleagues within the profession and the sector and for them to personally recommend attendance of this programme. Take the opportunity; it can be life-changing!’