Hedy Lamarr: Laying the groundwork for Wi-Fi
A Women's History Month post celebrating Hedy Lamarr.
Throughout Women’s History Month in March, women at Tucows will be reflecting on women who made a notable contribution to the Internet and technology as we know it today or inspired them personally.
If you know Hedy Lamarr, it’s most likely as a film star in the golden age of cinema where she starred opposite and alongside the biggest names of the day. Typecast as an exotic seductress, it’s understandable that she grew bored and went looking for something more fulfilling. Just as well for us; the radio signal hopping idea she came up with is core to the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS technologies we take for granted today.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. As a young child, she showed interest in theater and film. Hedy would garner many admirers who would deliver roses to her dressing room in hopes of meeting her. From her humble beginnings in Europe, she by chance met with Louis B. Mayer, of MGM fame, and was catapulted onto the big screen and Hollywood.
By day, she was the “world’s most beautiful woman” starring in many popular films–but it was her side hustles that would have a more lasting impact. She was always working on hobbies and inventions in her spare time. Her walks with her father as a young girl influenced her to always be curious of how various technologies worked together.
A wartime invention
With the world in the grips of WW2, Lamarr made it her mission to help and put her inventor’s mind to the task. She learned that radio-controlled torpedoes were susceptible to enemy takeover; they could be jammed and set off course by anyone that figured out which radio frequency they ran on. The idea to hop around radio frequencies instead of using just one was born.
By constantly switching frequencies, it would be much more difficult for the enemy to hijack the signal or track a torpedo using radio frequency. Working together with her friend and partner George Antheil, she designed a frequency-hopping system and went about trying to get it in front of the military as a solution to their very real torpedo takeover problem.
However, this frequency-hopping idea wasn’t implemented during the war that inspired it. The military wasn’t keen on civilian submissions to defense at the time. Lamarr( under her married name, Hedy Markey) and Antheil secured U.S patent 2,292,387 for their “secret communication system” concept.
In 1962, Lamarr’s invention was finally implemented on Navy ships—an impressive feat, but far from the end of her story.
Like all many great ideas, this frequency-hopping invention was a springboard for other innovations. It didn’t just pave the way for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and other technologies we rely on today; it’s fundamental to the way they work.