Many people may know Hedy Lamarr as “The Most Beautiful Woman in Film” but the truth is, Lamarr gave real meaning to the term “beauty and brains.” What many do not know is the genius that was Hedy Lamarr and what a huge contribution she made to global technology. You have probably used technology that Lamarr designed before you even read this blog post today. Don’t believe me? If you’re using WiFi to read this post (and I know you are) then you are using technology that she invented. The field of STEM owes a lot to Lamarr and very few people are aware of her contributions.
Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9th 1914 in Austria, introduced the very technology that serves as the foundation of today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems (Hedy Lamarr, 2022). During World War II, Lamarr invented “frequency hopping” or a way for radio transmitters and torpedo’s receivers to jump from frequency to frequency simultaneously, making it impossible for any enemy to locate and block a message before it moved to a different frequency (Alice George, 2019). Lamarr created the design as a way to end the Axis Powers’ interception of military signals. Her idea laid the groundwork for the advent of the transistor, changing both the military and cell phone industries forever!
As if it weren’t enough that she was a genius, she was also an accomplished actress of her time who struck viewers with her natural beauty. She starred in her first film at 17 years of age and in 1932, she caught the attention of Hollywood, consequently signing a contract with MGM. She starred in numerous films alongside other Hollywood’s greats like Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Charles Boyer.
What really is impressive though is Lamarr’s mind. At the tender age of 5, she was able to take apart and reassemble her music box in an effort to understand how the machine operated. Her father, a bank director, would take Hedy on long walks and talk to her about the inner-workings of machines such as the printing press and street cars (Colleen Cheslak, 2018). She was beyond her time in terms of her imaginative creativity and willingness to take risks at a time when many women were still barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
Lamarr was not immune to the idea of women’s subservient nature - in 1933 she married an Austrian munitions dealer, who desired to control her and who was also verbally abusive. Lamarr had the wherewithal to escape her situation and fled to London in 1937, however throughout her four-year marriage, she gained immense weaponry knowledge by overhearing her husband’s conversations. After escaping to London and subsequently moving to America to further her acting career with MGM, Lamarr became extremely concerned about the war effort that was about to begin. Specifically, Lamarr sought to create a device that would block enemy ships from jamming torpedo guidance signals. She felt that she needed to do something to stop enemy advances, and so she did just that.
Lamarr teamed up with composer George Antheil and together they manufactured the aforementioned “frequency hopping” communication concept. The pair was awarded a U.S. Patent for their creation, however the U.S. Navy decided not to use Lamarr and Antheil’s patented system. With that, Lamarr used her celebrity status to sell $25 million in war bonds to support the Allies’ mission and she also spearheaded an MGM letter-writing campaign that resulted in over 2,000 letters written for servicemen in the war. In April 1953, after already giving so much to the United States, she officially became an American citizen. Lamarr and Antheil’s patent expired before Lamarr could ever lay claim to the value her idea generated. Years later in 1962, their frequency hopping technology was used during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with no recognition from the U.S. military.
Hedy Lamarr once said, “Improving things come naturally to me”; it is chilling to think about the extent that her design and brilliant mind improved lives across the globe and continues to do so each and every day. So next time that you login remotely to check your email or plug a new destination into your GPS, take a moment to thank the “Mother of Wifi” and tell those around you about Hedy Lamarr. We owe her at least that much.
Photo: Public domain Hedy Lamarr publicity photo for the film The Heavenly Body, 1944
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