Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) is known for her beauty and acting abilities, A Golden Era leading lady who starred in such films as Cecille B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning Samson and Delilah (1949).
But as Hedy once said, “[t]he brains of people are more interesting than the looks.” That certainly held true with Hedy, who was also a brilliant inventor responsible for the technology that evolved into today’s Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth communications systems.
Hedy is the first-named inventor on U.S. Pat. No. 2,292,387 titled “Secret Communication System,” issued August 11, 1942, for an invention that “relates broadly to secret communication systems involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies, and is especially useful in the remote control of dirigible craft, such as torpedoes.” Colloquially, Hedy’s invention is referred to as “frequency hopping.”
Hedy came about her inventive curiosity naturally. Her father, himself a curious man, inspired her to ask questions about the world around her. They often took long walks together, during which her father would tell her about the inner workings of machines like printing presses and street cars. Apparently stimulated by these outings, little Hedy is said to have taken apart her music box to understand how it worked when she was just five years old.
But Hedy lived in a time where it was hard for women to be celebrated for their intelligence. Instead, her beauty became the focus when she was discovered by an Austrian director at just 16 years old; she landed a role in her first small film by 1930. Her celebrity grew when she came to the United States and began working for MGM Studios in the late 1930s.
Once in Hollywood, Hedy was introduced to Howard Hughes of Spruce Goose fame. The two began dating, and Hughes, recognizing Hedy’s genius, set Hedy up with scientific equipment in her trailer to tinker with while she was on set (she already had a lab set up at home). Not only did Hedy’s inventive mind come up with a new airplane wing design for Hughes, she also created an improved stoplight, a soluble tablet for creating soda, a shower chair, and a fluorescent dog collar. As she once said of herself, “I don’t have to work on ideas; they come naturally. ... I have an inventive mind.”
It was the leadup to the US’s entry into World War II that saw Hedy’s genius truly flower. She met composer George Antheil in 1940, himself an inventive mind, and the two decided to contribute to the war effort in a more meaningful way. The result was their invention of “frequency hopping,” intended to guide torpedoes to their targets by a system where both transmitter and receiver hopped to new frequencies together, preventing the interception of radio waves. Unfortunately, the Navy rejected their patented technology, telling Hedy she’d be more useful using her celebrity to sell war bonds.
Hedy’s frequency-hopping invention is currently estimated to be worth $30 billion, but Hedy never saw a penny from her patent. Her inventive genius was not recognized until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation jointly award Hedy and Antheil the Pioneer Award. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 2014 for her frequency hopping technology.
Particularly in the “new normal” of remote work, which is highly reliant on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communications, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the brilliance of Hedy Lamarr. Truly a woman ahead of her time, she continues to be an inspiration for women in technology everywhere.