Celebrating Women’s History Month in Technology: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr, was a Hollywood actress bombshell and immigrant with international fame in 1930’s and 1940’s in movies such as “Ecstacy” (1933), “Algiers” (1938) and “Ziegfeld Girl” (1941). To the world, she was the most beautiful women and little did they know that she was brilliant. She was not taken seriously for a long time since she was a pretty face. Behind closed doors, she had more to offer than just acting and beauty. During the second world war, she alongside her friend and composer George Antheil, created an invention intended for the U.S. Navy which is now used in our modern wireless communication.

Lamarr was born and raised in Austria to Jewish parents, she felt a sense of despair as she watched her people being tortured while she enjoyed luxury overseas. She fled to Germany in 1937 as the Nazi’s were on a rise to power and then traveled by boat to America followed by a movie contract with MGM. Despite that, she knew she had to protect the Navy ships in the Atlantic to prevent the interception of torpedo transmissions.

Lamarr had become familiar with the weaponry during her first marriage with Friedrick Mandl who converted to Catholicism so he could have business relations with Nazis. She heard about the issue during dinner parties with her husband and Nazi generals. She knew that radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be intercepted by the enemy. Once she fled to America, she knew it was her chance to work on a solution.

As a result, she invented and patented a communication system using frequency hopping to help guide radio systems for missiles underwater that would not be detected by enemies.  The mechanism was inspired by a piano roll from the composer and herself. They thought if you can synchronize the hop from one note to another in a piano, why not do that for radio signals using piano roll on torpedoes? The military thought it was a ridiculous idea to use piano roll’s concepts and dismissed them. Later, the military re-used her idea and since it has been used in GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies. While she did patent the idea “Secret Communication System” in 1942, the U.S. Navy ignored the invention until it was rediscovered and used during the Cuban Missle Crisis.

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Hedy Lamarr was able to deal with all obstacles from war, sexism, immigration. While her work was not recognized at first, she has since become coined as one of the top female technology inventors to date. This goes to show you that with persistence, any women should not be intimidated by society because of your beauty and grace. We, as women have more to offer and should not be discriminated against.

Check out my discussion on this topic:

Check our her documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”

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