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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 most people know little 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, Bluetooth and even smartphones.

Stick around for the scoop on how Hedy Lamarr went from "Ecstasy" to encrypting messages and how her legacy extends beyond the screen to the very devices that define our daily lives.

This is one history lesson you won't want to skip!

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 travelling 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 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 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 cameras stopped rolling, Hedy's passion was for science, innovation and invention. 


Hedy Lamarr's inventions: From frequency hopping  to spread spectrum 

"Inventions are easy for me to do, the Austrian accented LaMarr says in 'Bombshell.'
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 wireless communication: it would pave the way for the foundation for today's mobile phones, WiFi, Bluetooth, and, of course, GPS. 

"Frequency hopping" was an ingenious way of switching between radio frequencies to avoid jamming signals.

Hedy Lamarr's inventive mind developed it 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 underwater without being detected.

But it was dismissed then, and the discovery's significance would not be realized until decades later when the US Navy used it during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

It would subsequently be used in a wide range of military applications. Still, 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 as she left school at 15. 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. 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 about Hedy Lamarr's incredible ingenuity. 

Hedy Lamarr's innovative mind led her to redesign aircraft wings inspired by fast-moving birds and fish, earning Howard Hughes' admiration. « You are a genius,» he said.  


Beyond her on-screen allure and off-screen inventiveness, Hedy Lamarr once used her star power to sell war bonds during World War II. In a famous incident, she capitalised on her celebrity status by promising a kiss to any buyer of $25,000 worth of bonds.

Her efforts at one event reportedly netted a whopping $7 million for the war effort in a single evening.

This tale showcases Lamarr's savvy use of her image for patriotism, not just glamour.


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