Tech History

National Women’s History Month: Honoring Hedy Lamarr

If you’re a Cinephilia – someone with a passionate interest in cinema, film theory and film criticism – or just a movie buff, you ought to know the name Hedy Lamarr. But, if you’re neither, this may be your first exposure to that name. Either way, Lamarr is the woman highly regarded as the most beautiful woman to ever appear in films. Yes, this can be a debated over and over again, but her exploits as an inventor are etched in history. She developed a radio guidance system for American torpedoes during World War II, and today the principles in her work are incorporated in the telecommunications industry. Lamarr was more than just another pretty face and this became more evident as time elapsed. In the late 1990’s she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and later was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

German Film Credits

Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria in 1914 to parents from two Jewish families. She became fascinated by cinema at an early age and so decided to drop out of school as a teenager to pursue a career as an actress. She moved to Berlin and quickly got roles in five German films, the last of which (Estacy) propelled her to worldwide fame in 1933 after the film’s nude scenes created such a commotion that it was banned by the United States government at the time.

Hollywood Film Credits

Hollywood took immediate notice and in 1938 Lamarr made her American debut in the film Algiers. Unfortunately, her career began to decline after World War II, and after turning down the lead role in the classic and adored romantic melodrama Casablanca in 1942, went on to star in the Bible drama film Sampson and Delilah. She’s credited with 35 movie roles at the time her retirement and died in Casselberry, Florida on January 19, 2000.

Secret Communications System

Lamarr’s rollercoaster silver screen exploits is in no way a testament to her contribution to the communications industry. Her technical mind became her greatest legacy, proving she was much more than just another pretty face in Hollywood. Today, her name is cemented on the list of the 20th century’s most important women inventors. In 1941, along with co-inventor George Anthiel, the world-renown beauty icon received a patent and together they developed a “Secret Communications System” to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.

Evolution of Wireless Communications

The significance of the frequency-hopping invention was never realized at the time but became pretty clear in the latter years. It galvanized the digital communications boom and formed the technical backbone that made cell phone and fax machines possible. It also became a precursor to secure wireless operations such as Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth. Today, CDMA cell phone networks like those run by Sprint and Verizon use this technology. Even the U.S. military has publicly acknowledged the use of this invention in their everyday operations after it was first implemented on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

No Compensation

Thanks to Lamarr, billions of people worldwide presently communicate wirelessly. According to Broadcom Corporation, a U. S. company that produces wireless and broadband products, “an average home for a family of four will need connectivity for up to a whopping 50 Wi-Fi devices by 2022.” Reports indicate that neither Lamarr nor her estate received any compensation from the multi-billion-dollar industry her idea paved the way for, but in 1997 she and Anthiel were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award.  That same year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed “The Oscar of Inventing.”