Hedy Lamarr

Chances are, you’re reading this WiSE Wednesday profile with the aid of Wi-Fi. If so, you have this week’s honoree, Hedy Lamarr to thank! Better known to many as the actress who starred in mid-1900s films, Lamarr developed a frequency-hopping technology central to present-day wireless technologies including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Hedy was born in Vienna in 1914. Her acting skills were discovered when she was a teenager, leading to an early acting career in Europe. At the age of 18, she married a wealthy Austrian businessman 15 years her senior, Friedrich Mandl. Mandl was very controlling, leading Hedy to eventually flee to Paris, but not before she had the chance to learn about applied science by sitting in on Mandl’s business meetings with scientists discussing military technology.

In Paris Lamarr met a talent scout who brought her to Hollywood in 1938, where she began a successful acting career. Her talents weren’t limited to the stage however – despite lacking any formal training, she loved inventing. Lamarr’s greatest technological contribution came during World War II, although it’s importance wouldn’t be fully recognized until years later.

Having learned about torpedoes during Mendl’s meetings, Lamarr’s curiosity was peaked when she heard of the possibility of jamming radio-controlled torpedoes in order to force them off-course. Brainstorming ideas to protect torpedoes from this interference, Lamarr envisioned a frequency-hopping signal that could quickly change frequencies to make it resistant to jamming. She shared her idea with her friend George Antheil. Antheil, a composer and pianist helped her synchronize a miniaturized player-piano mechanism with radio signals to achieve just that. Based on this device, they designed a frequency-hopping system that they patented in 1942. They donated it to the Navy in the hopes of aiding the war effort but the Navy was reluctant to take ideas from outside the military and, despite the technology’s potential, it was difficult to implement. It was not until 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, that a version of their technology was adopted by Navy ships

In addition to its military importance, the frequency-hopping technology Lamarr & Antheil invented served as the foundation of “spread-spectrum” wireless communications that form the backbone of today’s Wi-Fi, GPS, and other wireless systems.

In recognition of her contribution Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014. An actress and a composer developed a technology that greatly shapes our modern world. So think you need to be an “academic” to be in STEM? Think again!