Updated: Sep 2, 2019
On this day in 1942, the stunning Hedy Lamarr gave us all a pretty amazing gift, one you’re probably using right now.
Seen here in 1941’s Ziegfeld Girl, with costumes by Adrian, she was roundly agreed to be one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses. Born in Austria, she had gained early fame for a risqué nude swimming scene in Ecstasy, a Czech film deemed so scandalous at the time that it was banned by both the Pope and Hitler. Lamarr met MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer on a ship headed to London in 1937, and in 1938 he brought her to Hollywood, where she vaulted into star status with such films as 1938’s Algiers (her Hollywood film debut) with Charles Boyer and 1939’s Lady of the Tropics with Robert Taylor; at the time Mayer famously promoted Lamarr as “the most beautiful woman in the world." But while Lamarr had loved acting since she was a little girl in Vienna, she never enjoyed how she was positioned in the film industry and was frustrated by the roles she was given, once famously saying, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Lamarr had always loved inventions and tinkering with machines, so in her Hollywood home she set up a small studio, a place where she could explore ideas after a day on a film set. Then in the early days of World War II, she learned about the problem of frequency jamming, how torpedoes could be detected and have their signals jammed, and she became determined to discover a solution. She partnered with composer George Antheil — among his most famous scores was for Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place in 1950, with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame — and between the two of them, they developed the concept of frequency hopping, using a piano roll as the basis of the idea, which allowed the frequency to skip between signals and not be detected.
Lamarr and Antheil filed the application for their patent on June 10th, 1941, and on August 11th, 1942, they were granted US Patent 2,292,387 — Lamarr had filed it using both the name she was born with and her then-married name: Hedy Kiesler Markey (Lamarr later noted that she used her married name because she thought it might lend the idea more credibility, vs. an idea submitted by a well-known Hollywood actress). One of their schematics for the idea is seen here at right.
Yet while Lamarr was thrilled that she might have solved an important problem, by then the US Navy wasn’t into implementing new ideas, and it was largely forgotten. However, prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 — and, notably, after the patent had expired in 1959 — the Navy picked up the idea again, updating it and applying it to their torpedo systems.
Lamarr and Antheil never received a penny for their invention, which was also adopted by private companies. Today it's widely considered that the pair's spread-spectrum technology ultimately became the basis for GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Lamarr and Antheil later were honored by various organizations, including a posthumous inclusion in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 — Antheil died in 1959, while Lamarr, largely penniless, died in 2000 — but their contribution to something that’s become so integral to our daily lives has for the most part been forgotten.
In recent years there’s been a movement to highlight Hedy’s rightful place in history. Her story is told in the great 2017 documentary, Bombshell, available on Netflix. I also wrote about Hedy’s other life as an inventor in February for The Hollywood Reporter, timed to the release of two children’s books that highlight her unique story and celebrate her achievements; here’s a link to that piece.
So if you’re using Wi-Fi today to read this story — or, indeed, anytime you use your smartphone — thank Hedy Lamarr, the gorgeous Hollywood actress who proved she was far more than a pretty face.