The Original InnovateHer: Hedy Lamarr

Written by: on October 3, 2019
Tags: Feminist, Guest Blogger, Role Model, Women in Tech

Hope & curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. The unknown was always so attractive to me… and still is.

You might have heard of Hedy Lamarr as the Hollywood actress known as the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ throughout the 1940s – but did you know she was also an inventor and pioneer in wireless technology?

Lamarr starred in huge films such as Ziegfeld Girl and Ecstasy, but claimed that the lack of challenges in her acting career left her bored, and so turned to inventing as a way to relieve this boredom. Her earliest creations included an impressive but unsuccessful attempt at a tablet intended to dissolve in water to carbonate a drink (which she likened to tasting like an antacid – yuck), and an improvement on the traffic light.

Hedy Lamarr

Before Lamarr entered Hollywood, she lived in Austria and was married to Friedrich Mandl, who she described as “extremely controlling, preventing her from pursuing her acting career and keeping her a virtual prisoner” in her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me. This same man had strong ties to fascist Germany and Italy, and Lamarr noted that he even had Hitler and Mussolini attend extravagant parties at his home. Lamarr would often accompany her husband to business meetings with scientists and other professionals who were involved in military technology, which sparked her interest in applied science. Fortunately, she escaped him and distanced herself from her country by fleeing to Paris in 1937, where she was scouted by Louis B. Mayer who soon helped her to begin her career in Hollywood.

During the Second World War, Lamarr, alongside co-inventor George Anthiel, developed an idea for a system that would go on to become the technology that makes possible the very wireless operations we use today. The idea was called the ‘Secret Communication System’ and was created with the intention to solve the problem of the enemies blocking signals from radio-controlled missiles during the war. It would do this by preventing these enemies from being able to detect these signals by altering the radio frequencies, known as ‘frequency hopping’. Unfortunately, due to the limited technology of the time, it was difficult to develop the idea at first, and Lamarr believed that that was the end of it. However, it turned out that her ‘Secret Communications System’ had in fact been used during the Cold War in the creation of stealthier missiles that would be near impossible for enemies to trace. Later, her patented system was claimed to be responsible for ‘spread spectrum’ communication technology, which is the technology that makes mobile phones, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi work.

Today, in a world of women who are often told that being beautiful cannot co-exist with intelligence and empowerment, Lamarr is proof that beauty doesn’t mean lack of brains. Technology wouldn’t be what it is today without Lamarr and other wonderful geeky women – so let’s make sure the future of tech involves even more of us!

Written by Rose Cairns.

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