Hedy Lamarr (November 9, 1914 – January 19, 2000) was once billed as the World’s Most Beautiful Woman. The Austrian-born actress landed a contract with MGM in 1937 and achieved stardom with her performance in the 1938 film Algiers. Her role in the 1949 movie Samson and Delilah was her biggest theatrical success. The rest of her Hollywood career, alas, did not live up to her billing as “The Most Promising Actress” in a 1938 poll. Although her beauty and talent were quite apparent, she never seemed to land the types of roles that would give her continued success on the silver screen. Although honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, she was more-or-less written off as just another pretty face who did not live up to the early hopes of super stardom.
What most people do not know is that Hedy Lamarr was much more than just another pretty face. Behind that dazzling beauty was a keen brain and scientific ingenuity that was decades ahead of its time. If you are reading this now on a mobile phone or a device that accesses the internet through WiFi or Bluetooth, you can thank Hedy Lamarr for making that possible.
In her spare time, Lamarr liked to dream up inventions. She had no formal training and was primarily self-taught, but her curiosity led her to contemplate a vast variety of ways to improve the world around her.
Her relationship with aviation tycoon Howard Hughes caused her active imagination to consider the design of the airplane. Until that time, the design of aircraft was primarily focused on allowing them to become airborne. Lamarr thought they could be made faster, as well. She suggested Hughes design his planes to be streamlined, basing the shape on that of fastest birds and fish. Hughes was more than intrigued. He put his team of scientists and engineers at her disposal, saying they would do or make anything she asked for.
She also turned her imagination to ideas that she developed herself. Among these ideas was an improved stoplight for traffic, as well as a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink. The latter was less successful than she hoped. She abandoned the project after concluding that it made drinks taste like Alka-Seltzer.
It was in the midst of World War II that she turned her attention to solving a very significant problem. She was intrigued by the new technology of radio-guided torpedoes. Far superior to the old point-and-fire method of submarine warfare, the radio-guided torpedo promised much greater success in hitting a moving target. The problem was that it was quite easy for enemy subs to jam the torpedo’s frequency and send it off course.
Lamarr conceived of a frequency-hopping method for directing the torpedo’s movement. This method would prevent jamming and would even reduce detection until it was too late for the enemy. Lamarr called the technology “Spread Spectrum Communication.”
With the help of her friend, composer and pianist George Antheil, she set to work to bring her ideas to fruition. Antheil said, “We began talking about the war, which, in the late summer of 1940, was looking most extremely black. Hedy said that she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state. She said that she knew a good deal about munitions and various secret weapons … and that she was thinking seriously of quitting MGM and going to Washington, DC, to offer her services to the newly established Inventors’ Council.” Together they synchronized a miniaturized player-piano mechanism using radio signals. They applied for and were granted U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 for a “Secret Communication System” on August 11, 1942.
The invention was, literally, decades ahead of its time. Because of the difficulty in implementing the new concept, no one made use of it. It wasn’t until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that the U.S. Navy began incorporating an updated version of the invention into its technology. By this point, however, Lamarr’s patent had expired, and she did not receive any compensation for her ingenuity.
As it turned out Spread Spectrum Communication proved to be useful in many more ways than submarine warfare. Lamarr’s invention was the forerunner of technology that made the Information Age possible. Cellular communication, WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS systems all rely upon the product of Lamarr’s ingenuity.
Lamarr and Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award in 1997. These honors are given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences, business, or invention fields have significantly contributed to society. In 2014 Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2017 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story was released in an effort to memorialize the otherwise-forgotten achievements of a woman who was far more than just another pretty face.