Hedy Lamarr was an inventor, pin-up and film actress. She co-developed an early technique for spread spectrum communications which are key in many wireless communications used today, including Wi-Fi.
Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Austria. In the late 1920’s, her acting talents were discovered by producer Max Reinhardt. He took her to Berlin and she trained in the theatre before returning to Vienna. She began work in the film industry, first first as a script girl and then as an actress. At 17 she starred in her first film, a German project called Geld Auf Der Strase. She went on to star in both German and Czechoslavakian films and in 1933 she starred in a sexually charged German film called Exstase (Ecstasy) which brought her to the attention of Hollywood producers. That same year she married her first husband, Friedrich Mandl. It was through Mandl that she was introduced to applied science when accompanying him to business meetings on military technology.
In 1938, after leaving her husband and travelling to the United States, Lamarr signed a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in Hollywood, changing her name from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr. Her first American film, Algiers made her an immediate box-office sensation. She continued to make well-received films throughout the 1930s and 1940s including: Lady of the Tropics (1939); Boom Town (1940); Tortilla Flat (1942) and Samson and Delilah (1949). Lamarr’s roles were designed to play on her beauty and sexuality and were light on dialogue. She had became bored with the lack of challenge and turned her focus to inventing.
At the beginning of World War II, Lamarr initially wanted to join the National Inventors Council but instead was told by NIC member Charles F. Kettering that she should use her celebrity status to sell war bonds. She wanted to use her interest in science to help to defeat the Nazi’s and this only intensified once German submarines began torpedoing passenger liners. Lamarr devoted a room in her house to drafting designs for frequency-hopping in an attempt to counter torpedoes. She worked with the avant-garde composer George Antheil and they used the knowledge Lamarr had gained on torpedoes during her marriage to Mandl. She knew that they could easily be jammed by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control signal, causing the torpedo to go off course.
Together, Lamarr and Antheil began to develop the idea of using frequency hopping to avoid jamming. They used a piano roll to unpredictably change the signal sent between a control center and the torpedo at short bursts within a range of 88 frequencies (there are 88 keys on a piano) in the radio-frequency spectrum. The codes would be held by both the controlling ship and the torpedo. It would be impossible for the enemy to scan and jam all 88 frequencies. In 1942, Lamar and Antheil were granted a patent for their Secret Communication System which allowed classified messages to be sent without fear of interception by enemy personnel. The idea was not implemented until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba after the patent had expired. The system became an important step in the development of technology to maintain the security of both military communications and cellular phones.
Lamarr’s film career declined in the 1950s and her last film was 1958’s The Female Animal. In 1966 she published a best-selling autobiography, Ecstasy and Me. She later sued the publisher for what she saw as errors and distortions written by the book’s ghostwriter. She retreated from public life in 1981 and died at the age of 85 in 2000.
Lamarr recognised for her invention in 1997, when she and Antheil were honoured with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. She also became the first female to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered “The Oscars” of inventing. Lamarr and Antheil’s work became the basis for spread-spectrum communication technology like GPS, Bluetooth, COFDM (used in Wi-Fi network connections), and CDMA (used in some cordless and wireless cell phones). Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.