By: Tony Ridzyowski on March 27th, 2018


This Women’s History Month, Meet Hedy Lamarr: Inventor of WiFi


This Womens History Month, Meet Hedy Lamarr.jpgMost people associate Hedy Lamarr with the Golden Age of Hollywood, but perhaps her greatest role was much less glamorous — and much more impactful.

“The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think,” remarked screen icon Hedy Lamarr in 1990. And no one offered better proof of that statement than Lamarr herself.

Born Hedwig Kiesler to a rich Viennese family on November 9, 1913, Lamarr is best known as one of the most visible Hollywood stars of the ‘40s and ‘50s. After escaping Europe — and her fascist arms-dealing first husband, Fritz Mandl — on the eve of the Second World War, Lamarr parlayed her limited acting experience and striking good looks into a weekly contract at MGM.

Kiesler decided her name sounded a bit too much like “keister,” so MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer gave Lamarr her stage name — an homage to silent film star Barbara La Marr. Though Mayer shaped the young actress’ image to fit MGM’s family-friendly profile, Lamarr’s acting career up until that point had been controversial, even scandalous. She’d appeared in Czech director Gustav Machatý’s 1933 film, Ecstasy, which featured frank sex scenes that shocked audiences, but are considered ahead of their time today.

Sadly, thanks to her tumultuous private life (she was married six times, including, finally, to her own divorce lawyer) and Hollywood’s inability to see past a pretty face, Lamarr was largely pigeonholed as a seductress type. But with directors insisting she only “stand still and look pretty” on set, Lamarr had plenty of spare time between takes in her trailer — time she put to incredibly good use.


Actress By Day, Inventor By Night

According to those closest to her, whenever Lamarr wasn’t acting, she was inventing. Over the course of her life, Lamarr created everything from bouillon-esque cubes that transformed water into a Coke-like soft drink to a skin-tautening technique based on the accordion. Her most enduring invention, however, was an early version of the technology that underlies nearly all of modern telecommunications.

In the mid-20th century, weapons manufacturers realized that radio waves represented the most effective mechanism by which to control munitions like torpedos. The only problem was that enemy forces could interfere with the remote control of one’s weapons simply by guessing and jamming the dedicated control frequency. Although she had no formal education in weapons technology (or any other scientific field, for that matter) Lamarr had absorbed a great deal of information by sitting in on meetings with Mandl. When the war broke out, she set to work on a revolutionary anti-jamming device.

By the early ’40s, Lamarr had come up with a design for a “Secret Communications System,” through which radio messages were relayed between a transmitter and a receiver over multiple randomly determined frequencies. In practice, this meant that signals sent from a vessel to a torpedo would “hop” across frequencies so quickly that an enemy attempting to intercept the transmissions would never hear more than a blip on any given frequency, effectively eliminating the possibility of signal jamming.

Lamarr enlisted the help of avant-garde composer George Antheil to help ensure the transmitter and receiver remained synchronized as the messages cycled through frequencies, and in 1942, the two artists-turned-inventors were awarded US Patent Number 2,292,387 for their work.

Instead of bringing their invention to market, however, Lamarr and Antheil provided it to the American government at no cost. Unfortunately, many in the Department of Defense turned up their noses at the frequency-hopping device, and the technology wasn’t put into action until the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. At that point, the patent had already expired.


The Foundation of WiFi, Bluetooth, and More

The technological principles underlying Lamarr’s Secret Communications System serve as the foundation of what’s now known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) telecommunications. In short, this technology enables multiple parties to use a single radio frequency simultaneously without experiencing excessive interference.

According to a 1990 Forbes profile of Lamarr, FHSS is so effective that it undergirds “the principle anti-jamming device used in the US government’s $25 billion Milstar defense communications satellite system.” But that’s not all — FHSS is also a critical component of modern telecommunications technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS.

While Lamarr’s remarkable scientific contributions went unheralded for much of her life, in 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation finally recognized her and Antheil for their groundbreaking work. Encouragingly, a recent documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, has brought a new wave of attention to one of American history’s greatest dual-threats. This Women’s History Month, there are few performers more worthy of celebration than Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler.

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