Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood “It Girl” Turned STEM Inventor

By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Hedy Lamarr illustration by U.S. Department of Energy.

Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr was building her film resume as World War II began. The actress saw minimal success in Europe before fleeing her troubled marriage to an Austrian military arms dealer. Lamar eventually made her way to Paris and then Hollywood, where her career began to blossom.

Often typecast as exotic and glamorous, Lamarr would go on to defy the box some critics tried to trap her in by inventing a critical communications system during the war. To combat her boredom with the lack of depth in her film roles, Lamarr privately turned to tinkering and inventing as hobbies. Lamarr was not a decorated scientist but, instead, a self-taught hobbyist. Her friend, eccentric filmmaker and philanthropist Howard Hughes recognized her genius when Lamarr suggested ways to improve his airplane. He gave Lamarr access to his team of scientists to help make her ideas come alive.

It was that inventive drive that helped fuel Lamarr’s goal of creating a secure communication system during the war. Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes could become jammed and go off course. She took what she’d learned about torpedoes from her former husband and began working on making a frequency-hopping signal that could not be jammed. Lamarr partnered with George Antheil, a composer, to help her build the device. Antheil made a small player-piano with radio signals that became the model for their invention.

Their idea to manipulate radio frequencies between transmission and reception created a code to prevent messages from being intercepted by the opposing side. The two ultimately patented their idea in 1942. But the invention was not used during WWII. It was not readily adopted by the Navy until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The U.S. Department of Energy notes the importance of Lamarr’s and Antheil’s invention:

“Their patent is the basis of modern cellphone technology. The basic concept was for radio signals to jump frequencies so that enemies couldn’t jam the signals. The technology was truly ahead of its time and was never used during World War II. However, the Navy used frequency-jumping, or spread spectrum technology, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, it forms the basis of how mobile phones, fax machines and other wireless communications work.”

Lamarr wasn’t readily praised or paid for her invention, but later in life, she and Antheil went on to receive numerous awards and accolades for their invention, including the prestigious BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award and a Google spotlight for the actress on her 101st birthday.

Reclusive later in life, Lamarr died in 2000 of congestive heart failure at her Florida home, but her contribution to science continues. The spread spectrum technology she helped invent opened the door for developing the Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS technologies that we use today.

Related links: Five Fast Facts about Actress and Inventor Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr, March 2017 Lamp Luminary
America’s Inventor

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