Hedy Lamarr was used to being admired for her looks. As a Hollywood film star in the 1930s and ’40s, she was frequently “cast as exotic, sultry women,” and at one point was called “the most beautiful woman in the world.” What she was less known for was her scientific intellect. During World War II, Lamarr quietly co-invented the technology that would be the precursor to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and other systems we rely on today.
Growing up in a Jewish family in Austria, as the daughter of “a bank director and curious man,” Lamarr had a natural curiosity about the world around her. As young as age 5, she would spend time taking apart and rebuilding her music box to understand how it worked. But her knack for tinkering was overshadowed by her looks — at 16, she got her first film role and quickly became an international icon.
An Austrian arms dealer named Friedrich Mandl became enamored with Lamarr, and she married him at age 18, in spite of his ties to Nazi groups. Lamarr would accompany Mandl to business meetings with other military weapons specialists and absorb their conversations, which sparked her interest and talent in applied science.
While her marriage may have been instructive, it was troubled. Mandl was incredibly jealous and tried to block Lamarr from continuing to act. “I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded — and imprisoned — having no mind, no life of its own,” Lamarr once said. She eventually fled the marriage and the country, signing a lucrative contract with MGM in the United States.
As her acting career continued to take off in tandem with the escalation of World War II, Lamarr became restless, feeling that she should do more to contribute to the Allies’ war efforts. “[Lamarr] said that she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state,” says her friend and collaborator George Antheil.
Together with Antheil, Lamarr came up with a groundbreaking new form of wireless communication known as spread spectrum. The concept was to create a wireless signal that could hop from frequency to frequency, making it impossible to track or jam. The duo received a patent for their technology in 1942, but the military refused to implement it in their war effort. “The Navy being the Navy, if it hadn’t been able to make a torpedo that worked, obviously it wasn’t going to be receptive to ideas coming in from outside,” says Lamarr’s biographer Richard Rhodes. “The Navy basically threw it into the file.”
The technology sat unused for years, until one day the military resurrected it in the 1960s and the system “spread like wildfire.” It became the backbone of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS and a range of wireless communication mechanisms we rely on today. By the time the technology was implemented, Lamarr’s patent had expired, and she never received a single payment for her revolutionary invention.
“From Hedy they absolutely wanted glamour,” says Alexandra Dean, director of “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.” “They wanted somebody to stare at in the movie theaters that would help forget all their troubles.” Lamarr’s talent for science and invention went largely ignored until the latter years of her life.
In 1997, Lamarr became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered the “Oscars of inventing.”
“It’s about time,” was Lamarr’s only comment.
Hedy Lamarr played the role she was expected to play in Hollywood — a beautiful object to admire on the big screen. If she hadn’t defied society’s expectations in other ways, communication as we know it could look completely different today.
As women continue to work for equal pay and equal representation in science, Lamarr’s experience can serve as a reminder: Pursue your talents and passions whether or not they fit cultural expectations. Not only will the world be better for it, but every innovator who defies the norms paves the way for others to follow.
Watch the video above to learn more about Hedy Lamarr and her groundbreaking invention.