How 1940s Film Star Hedy Lamarr Helped Invent the Technology Behind Wi-Fi & Bluetooth During WWII

A cer­tain ide­al of Amer­i­ca holds that an immi­grant who arrives in that land of oppor­tu­ni­ty can, with hard work and luck, com­plete­ly remake them­selves, even into an A‑list movie star or an inven­tor of hereto­fore unimag­ined new things. Hedy Lamarr, by this reck­on­ing, ranks among the ide­al Amer­i­cans: born Hed­wig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vien­na, she arrived in Hol­ly­wood in 1938 and reigned, under her new name grant­ed by movie mogul Louis B. May­er, as per­haps the most beau­ti­ful face on the sil­ver screen for the next dozen years.

A reluc­tant star since her ear­ly role in the scan­dalous Czech film Ekstase and in Amer­i­ca nev­er quite able to escape type­cast­ing as the mys­te­ri­ous, exot­ic beau­ty oppo­site a “real” actor, the bored Lamarr occu­pied her mind by turn­ing to inven­tion.

Work­ing away at her draft­ing table instead of mak­ing the night­ly Hol­ly­wood par­ty rounds, Lamarr came up with every­thing from dis­solv­ing soda tablets to improved traf­fic sig­nals and tis­sue box­es to a “skin-taut­ening tech­nique based on the prin­ci­ples of the accor­dion.”

But her place in the canon of Amer­i­can inven­tors rests on an idea that came out of a con­ver­sa­tion with com­pos­er George Antheil. Mar­ried back in Aus­tria to arms deal­er Friedrich Man­dl, she’d over­heard con­ver­sa­tions, accord­ing to her New York Times obit­u­ary, between her then-hus­band and many Nazi-high­er ups “who seemed to place great val­ue on cre­at­ing some sort of device that would per­mit the radio con­trol of air­borne tor­pe­does and reduce the dan­ger of jam­ming. She and Antheil got to dis­cussing all this. The idea, they decid­ed, was to defeat jam­ming efforts by send­ing syn­chro­nized radio sig­nals on var­i­ous wave­lengths to mis­siles, which could then be direct­ed to hit their mark.”

Lamarr filed this inge­nious patent for a “fre­quen­cy-hop­ping” com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem in 1942, but it raised no mil­i­tary inter­est until the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis twen­ty years lat­er, when the Navy start­ed using the tech­nol­o­gy on their ships. It evolved in the decades there­after, ulti­mate­ly becom­ing an indis­pens­able ele­ment of such tech­nolo­gies in wide­spread use today as wi-fi and Blue­tooth. Hav­ing signed her inven­tion over to the mil­i­tary, Lamarr nev­er made a dime from it her­self, but in 1996, four years before she died, she did receive the Elec­tron­ic Future Foun­da­tion’s Pio­neer Award. “It’s about time,” she said when she heard the news.

More recent­ly, his­to­ri­an Richard Rhodes told the sto­ry of Lamar­r’s invent­ing life in full with the book Hedy’s Fol­ly: The Life and Break­through Inven­tions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beau­ti­ful Woman in the World. “Hedy real­ized that what she came up with was impor­tant but I don’t think she knew how impor­tant it was going to be,” said her son Antho­ny Loder. “The def­i­n­i­tion of impor­tance is the more peo­ple that it affects over the longer peri­od of time. The longer this goes on and the more peo­ple it affects the more impor­tant she will be.” Lamarr her­self, in response to praise for her con­tri­bu­tion to com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy received in her life­time, explained it as mere­ly the result of fol­low­ing her instincts: “Improv­ing things comes nat­u­ral­ly to me.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch The Strange Woman, the 1946 Noir Film Star­ring Hedy Lamarr

Gus­tav Machatý’s Erotikon (1929) & Ekstase (1933): Cinema’s Ear­li­est Explo­rations of Women’s Sen­su­al­i­ty

Mark Twain’s Patent­ed Inven­tions for Bra Straps and Oth­er Every­day Items

Per­cus­sion­ist Mar­lon Bran­do Patent­ed His Inven­tion for Tun­ing Con­ga Drums

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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