Wi-Fi Was Created Thanks to This Old Hollywood Actress, and Here’s What She Did
During her almost 30-year-long acting career, Hedy Lamarr starred in dozens of movies, some of which were nominated for Oscars. However, it turns out that, apart from beauty and talent, Hedy also had a curious technical mind, and her cutting-edge inventions became precursors of Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth.
At Bright Side, we were truly surprised to learn that the technologies we can’t imagine our lives without now were invented with the help of an Old Hollywood actress, and here is the story.
Early life and acting in Europe
Hedy Lamarr was born in 1914 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. She was given the name Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. Hedy’s father was a bank manager, while her mother was a pianist. As a little girl, Hedy showed much interest in acting, movies, and theater; at the age of 12, she won a beauty contest. Her interest in invention also appeared in childhood, when Hedy’s father told her about how the world functions during their walks.
Still using the family name Kiesler, Hedy started her acting career in Europe with small movie parts. The film that brought Hedy world recognition was Ecstasy (1933), where she played a young woman married to an old man who eventually abandons her unhappy marriage.
Leaving for the US and starting a career in Hollywood
In 1937, Hedy met Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, who was then looking for talents in Europe. The actress impressed Mayer, got a $500 per week contract, and left for the USA with him. Mayer also persuaded Hedy to change her name, and she chose the surname Lamarr. In Hollywood, Hedy was introduced to famous directors and got her first big roles.
Lamarr was a very beautiful actress, and Mayer hoped she could become another Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. Some popular films that starred Lamarr include Algiers (1938), Boom Town (1940), Come Live With Me (1941), The Conspirators (1944), Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945), Samson and Delilah (1949), and The Story of Mankind (1957). The movie Algiers was nominated for several Academy Awards, while Samson and Delilah won two.
On screen image and real-life personality
During her acting career, Lamarr was mostly presented as a glamorous woman and femme fatale, often with just a few lines. The monotony of her acting career made Lamarr feel bored, and she is believed to have spent her free time inventing. Even though Hedy was self-taught, she had a curious and sophisticated mind that helped her achieve much in the technical field.
Ingenious mind and groundbreaking inventions
The inventions of Hedy Lamarr included an improved traffic spotlight, a tablet that created a carbonated drink when added into water, and an improved design of airplanes she created for aviation tycoon Howard Hughes. It is believed that Hedy suggested making the airplanes more streamlined, thus increasing their speed, based on the pictures of the fastest birds and fish.
But Lamarr’s most groundbreaking invention was the so-called “frequency-hopping spread spectrum.” During World War II, Hedy learned that radio-controlled torpedoes could be set off course by the enemies. That made her think of creating a frequency-hopping signal that could not be jammed.
Lamarr worked on this project alongside her friend, composer and pianist George Antheil. Their invention called Secret Communication System was awarded a US patent in 1942, and it consisted of synchronizing a player-piano mechanism with radio signals.
They showed the invention to the US Navy, but the mechanism that Lamarr and Antheil suggested seemed to be too bulky for the authorities, and hard to be built and used in practice. What is more, the Navy wasn’t enthusiastic about considering inventions that came from the outside during those times.
In 1959, the patent expired, but the mechanism designed by Hedy and George became a precursor of many other wireless communication devices that use spread spectrum technology, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS.
Hedy Lamarr was recognized as an inventor only in 1997 when she received the Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Even though she didn’t manage to bring her invention to life, she proved that any woman is free to do whatever is right to her, regardless of social stereotypes. Mostly perceived by the audience as a beautiful actress who played glamorous seductive women, she never thought playing such roles was her only option. She didn’t stop thinking, designing, and improving the world around her.
Family and later life
Hedy Lamarr was married six times and had three children. All her marriages ended in divorce, and she spent the last 35 years of her life as a single woman. In her later life, Hedy spent much time in seclusion. During the 1970s, she was offered many scripts and projects, but she turned them down. The former actress spent much time at home, mostly communicating with the outside world by telephone.
The only compensation for the frequency-hopping spread spectrum invention she received came in 1997 from a Canadian company that “signed an agreement with Lamarr to acquire 49% of the marketing rights of her patent, and a right of first refusal for the remaining 51% for ten quarterly payments.”
Hedy Lamarr died of heart disease on January 19, 2000, at the age of 85.
Had you heard anything about Hedy Lamarr’s inventions before you read this article? Have you seen any of the movies she starred in? Which one is your favorite?