Arts & Culture

Happy 100th, Hedy Lamarr!

The Hollywood actress was also one of the key inventors of the technology that became wifi

2 min read

A promotional picture of Hedy Lamarr
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There’s a good chance you are reading this via wifi. Amazing invention, isn’t it?

In the sixth episode of How We Got To Now, Steven Johnson tells some of wifi’s backstory. It didn’t start in some corporate lab, nor is it a tale of one struggling genius in a garage. It all began with a movie star.

That movie star was Hedy Lamarr, and this week would have been her 100th birthday.

Lamarr landed in Hollywood after an unhappy marriage to armaments magnate Friedrich Mandl. The third richest man in Austria, he had close social and business ties to the fascist governments of Italy and Germany and was highly controlling when it came to his wife. She escaped the marriage in 1937, but not before she’d been dragged to many business meetings about military technology.

She moved to Paris and then in London met film producer Louis B. Mayer (the second “M” in MGM). He hired her, gave her the name Hedy Lamarr–she was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler–and MGM soon began promoting her as the most beautiful woman in the world.

But as NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates said in marking the Lamarr centenary this week, “She hated that her image got top billing over her mind.” Lamarr apparently found Hollywood life a bit dull. She preferred sitting at home, reading Scientific American, to dressing up for the glamorous L.A. nightlife. When she did go to parties, she’d seek out the geeks, and it was at a dinner party that she got to chatting about military technology with the avant-garde composer George Antheil.

At the time, the U.S. Navy was struggling to use torpedoes against the Japanese. Radio guiding systems only used a single frequency, which had no privacy. They were all easy to find and jam, sending the torpedoes off course. Lamarr’s idea was to use a remote control torpedo, inspired by the remote control on the radio in her living room. Working with Antheil, she evolved something she called frequency hopping, which allowed the plane and the torpedo to synchronize continuous frequency changes so the enemy couldn’t intercept. It was a first in technologies of secure radio communication.

Antheil and Lamarr patented this plan for a secret communications system in 1942 (U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 if you want to look it up). Initially the U.S. Navy dismissed it, but the core idea remained. Decades later, during the Cold War, the navy dusted it off and adapted it to implement secure communications between ships. In the 1980s, the technology was declassified and found its way into car telephones. Bluetooth and GPS still use frequency hopping.

Lamarr’s work as an inventor is often ignored. In 1960, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but it wasn’t until this year that she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. When this part of her life is celebrated, it’s often used as a way to recognize women in engineering–and we should be careful of that.

Lamarr was an inventor, a fact that can’t be ignored. Her story also offers a powerful image of engineering in unexpected places. But we must also remember that she was an unusual woman, one offered the privileges of spare time and access to expert people. Most women–in the past and today–simply don’t have these luxuries. We must celebrate the many women of science and engineering who worked in less starry roles throughout the 20th century too–those at Bletchley Park, if you want a WWII example–not least because one of the ways women of science and engineering have been supresssed is by keeping them out of the limelight.

So here’s to Hedy. Happy 100th, you amazing woman. But let’s not allow her wonderfully weird and exciting life to blind us to the more mundane barriers women face in science and engineering–she never would have wanted that.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Arts & Culture section, which looks at innovations in human creativity. Click the logo to read more.