Women in technology: Hedy Lamarr, the mother of Wi-Fi
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Happy International Women’s Day! Let’s celebrate with this tribute to Hedy Lamarr.
In the 1940s, Hedy Lamarr was one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading ladies. But away from the cameras, her passion for innovation spawned the wireless communication technology we take for granted today.
Of all the many parts played by Hedy Lamarr during her glittering Hollywood career, none can be quite as inspirational as the one which most people know least about – her life away from the cameras.
For as much as she became known as ‘Hollywood’s most beautiful woman’, there was much more to Lamarr than just her stunning good looks. Put it this way: without her there might be no WiFi, no Bluetooth and even no smartphones.
Who was Hedy Lamarr?
Born in Vienna in 1914, Hedy Lamarr, whose real name was Hedwig Kiesler, emigrated to the US in 1937 and caught the eye of film producer Louis B. Mayer while traveling by ship from London to New York. She would go on to make over 25 movies, appearing opposite some of Tinseltown’s most iconic leading men, and socialized with the likes of US President John F. Kennedy and business magnate Howard Hughes.
As with many female roles at the time, Lamarr’s celluloid career often depended on her looks. She is still famed for performing what is regarded as being cinema’s first ever on-screen depiction of a female orgasm in one of her earliest movies, the 1933 film Ecstasy. It was a film banned in the USA for decades.
Off-screen, Hedy’s life was sometimes turbulent and often shrouded in scandal – she was married and divorced six times. But when the camera’s stopped rolling, Hedy’s passion was for science, innovation and invention.
From frequency hopping to spread spectrum technology
I don’t have to work on ideas, they come naturally.”
And invent she did. Armed with equipment gifted to her by fellow innovator (and sometime lover) Howard Hughes, Hedy Lamarr would spend hours in her trailer on movie sets, testing theories and experimenting with technology.
One such idea would prove to be a game changer in terms of wireless communication: it would pave the way for the foundation for today’s mobile phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and of course GPS.
“Frequency hopping” was an ingenious way of switching between radio frequencies in order to avoid a signal being jammed. It was developed by Hedy Lamarr with the American composer George Antheil as a “secret communications system”. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code that could prevent secret messages from being intercepted.
After receiving a patent for it in 1942, Hedy Lamarr donated the technology to the US military to help fight the Nazis, specifically to help guide torpedoes under water without being detected. But it was dismissed at the time and the significance of the discovery would not be realized until decades later when it was used by the US Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It would subsequently go on to be used in a wide range of military applications, but, significantly, it was the “spread spectrum” technology that Hedy Lamarr helped to invent that would form the basis of modern wireless communication technology and enable the smartphone boom and WiFi connections we take for granted today.
An unappreciated genius
Hedy Lamarr would often lament that her beauty – as much as it drove her Hollywood career – was also her curse. For most of her life, she was rarely considered for anything other than her image.
Indeed, Hedy Lamarr’s inventions didn’t become more widely known until the late 1990s, shortly before her death in January 2000. And they were revealed in more detail when her obituaries were published later that same year.
Hedy LaMarr never received any money for her invention.
Discover more on Hedy Lamarr’s incredible ingenuity
More resources on Hedy Lamarr and some related topics
- Heddy Lamarr’s biography
- Women in the automotive industry: A day in the life of Tao Haukka
- A brief history of pioneering women in Tech
- Women created these 50 inventions
- Top 10 inventors of all times
- 3 everyday inventions Einstein made possible