Surfing the internet, sending text messages, and even listening to music through your Apple AirPods is all commonplace today. It's become pretty difficult to imagine a world where communication wasn’t nearly instantaneous and it’s all thanks to movie star and tech pioneer Hedy Lamarr, dubbed the ‘Mother of Wifi.’
Up until 1985 when the FCC declassified military usage of her discovery, Lamarr’s contribution to the many technologies that make global communication possible was largely hidden from the world. Aside from being a trailblazer in tech, Lamarr was a famous Hollywood actress, lauded for her beauty, leading to some speculation that this was why her technical achievement was unknown for such a long time.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Austria, Lamarr took an early interest in technology and inventing. At the age of 5, she showed curiosity about the inner workings of a music box she was gifted by taking it apart and reassembling it. However, by age 16 she received her first taste of showbiz and landed a small role in the German film Geld auf der Staβe (Money on the Street).
In 1932, Lamarr’s star power exploded after she was featured in the film Ecstasy, a pioneering movie in portraying nudity and sexuality.
“It was the very first non-pornographic, all-nude film in Europe at that time, and it truly was not a pornographic movie. It was an art film, but at the same time, there had never been a fully unclothed actress appearing on screen,” said Marie Benedict, author of the historical fiction novel about Hedy Lamarr, The Only Woman in the Room.
But it was a role in the play Sissi as Empress Elisabeth that would attract one of the biggest and most feared arms dealers in Austria, Fritz Mandl. A year later the two would marry but the bliss was short-lived. According to Lamarr, her role in the marriage was limited to being arm candy and she was often ignored and left to host dinner parties at home.
Dinner Party Intel
It would be those dinner parties that would spark a flame under Lamarr, eventually leading to her future innovation. As a munitions manufacturer, Mandl played host to some of the future Axis players of World War II. Naturally, sensitive conversations took place within earshot of Lamarr and included a wide range of topics including weaponry and military strategies.
Lamarr and Mandl’s marriage had grown toxic and she attempted to flee his grip on numerous occasions. In 1937 she was successful in making a dramatic escape which involved drugging a maid who bore a striking resemblance to her, taking her uniform, and sneaking out with just some clothing, cash, and jewelry. While she left the marriage behind, however, the information she’d gained about the impending war was ingrained in her mind.
She eventually made her way to London, outside of Mandl's powerful influence, and then to America after meeting the co-founder of MGM Studios Louis B. Mayer. The budding international superstar hit the ground running in Hollywood, landing a role in the 1938 blockbuster, Algiers.
A year later, WWII would begin, and back home in Austria, Lamarr’s mother Gertrude Kiesler remained. This was likely an inspiration to do something with the information she had gained.
Communication Via Radio Signal
It wasn’t until Lamarr met ‘the bad boy of music,’ George Antheil, an avant-garde musician, inventor, and a munitions inspector, that she began to formulate a plan to do something for the war effort.
She had picked up on the importance of radio communications and how it would be a major factor in the fight, and the two began to tinker with ideas that would protect torpedos from signal jamming.
The breakthrough would become known as frequency hopping, where both the radio transmitter and receiver constantly shift to different frequencies, to avoid interception and interference. Lamarr and Antheil were granted a patent for the technology in 1942 — eight months after the Pearl Harbor bombing — but the Navy initially rejected the concept.
“It may just have been too expensive, too theoretical, too risky, but I have to say, there will always be a part of me that will wonder whether the fact that Hedy was a woman, and a famous beautiful woman, might have affected the decision making,” the author Benedict said.
Although the tech wasn’t implemented during the Second World War, the military would go on to use and build on it during the 1950s, creating the sonobuoy, which allowed sonar detection of submarines. Unfortunately for Lamarr and Antheil, the patent expired in 1959 and they received no credit or payment for the use of their invention.
The U.S. military also began implementing the technology so ships could communicate during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, labeling it frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS).
When computers became widely available, the technical advancement could generate pseudo random numbers to enable the frequency hopping envisioned by Lamarr and Antheil. Perhaps the greatest realization of Lamarr’s invention was that multiple devices now could be wirelessly linked to a network without interfering with each other.
Today, FHSS is the basis of everyday communication when it comes to cell phones, computers, and even Bluetooth devices.
Common aspects of everyday life rely on the technology Lamarr played a major role in creating. When you’re in the airport connecting your phone or laptop to a network with your fellow travelers, or at home linking your many devices to the same WiFi network, it’s because of an idea formed by a world-famous movie star in an effort to aid the Allies in World War II.
This is part of 'The Lightbulb Moment', A Cheddar and CuriosityStream Original Series, the show that uncovers the surprising impact of less-celebrated inventions and the moments of inspiration that made them possible.
Video produced by Ed Vega. Article written by Lawrence Banton.