She starred in movies with Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, and her beauty was the inspiration behind the looks for Catwoman and Disney's Snow White. But if you think Hedy Lamarr was just a pretty face, think again. The Austrian actress – who fled pre-war Europe and the Nazis – invented technology in the 1940s that laid the foundation for modern GPS and Wi-Fi. In between films, this Hollywood starlet spent hours at her drafting table putting her ideas on paper, the most important of which was intended to help defeat the Nazis. Today, a descendant of this technology is used to help drivers navigate when commuting and traveling.
Lamarr and her neighbor, film score composer George Antheil, invented a frequency hopping system that jammed radio signals, making it difficult for the enemy to intercept them. It was based on the 88 piano keys and intended to be used on torpedoes. Lamarr was inspired to develop the technology after German submarines started attacking civilian ships during World War II. Her goal was to help the Allies, and she donated the top-secret patent granted in 1942 to the Navy. Despite this generous gift, the Navy didn't use the technology until the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s.
The Birth of New Technology
As with many technologies, the original frequency hopping system led to additional innovations over time that eventually resulted in the spread-spectrum wireless communications used not only in GPS, but in mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth technologies. To some extent, all these technologies originated with Lamarr's and Antheil's war-time invention.
Although the pair never made money from the technology, they were finally recognized for their work in 1997 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which granted them the Pioneer Award for their significant and influential contributions to computer-based communication technology. They were also posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
The transition from frequency hopping to spread-spectrum technology began when Sylvania Electronics Systems changed the concept to use an electrical device instead of a mechanical one. This occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later advances that led to GPS, Wi-Fi, and cellular signal technology had its roots in Sylvania's now-expired patent.
Glamorous Star to Inventor
So, how did the former Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, a Jewish refugee and glamorous actress, know so much about science and technology? She learned about military and radio technology during her unhappy first marriage to Friedrich Mendl, a munitions manufacturer. He appreciated her mathematically-oriented brain and sometimes took her to business meetings. Ironically, her husband's business success also meant hosting Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini in her Viennese home several times.
Lamarr eventually left her husband and fled to Paris, where she caught the eye of MGM's Louis Mayer. She turned down what she considered Mayer's low-ball offer to make her into a Hollywood star, but she didn't give up. In fact, she booked passage to America on the same cross-Atlantic ship as Mayer. By the end of the journey, she had a much better deal that led to leading lady success on the big screen.
Although she was an actress by day, Lamarr wasn't interested in the typical entertainment social scene. Instead, she installed a drafting table in her home and spent many hours after work coming up with new inventions and designs. The frequency hopping technology wasn't her only inspiration, although it was the most successful. She invented a new traffic signal that was never used and an antacid-type tablet that made soda from water. She also designed new wings for Howard Hughes' airplane, the Spruce Goose.
In a changing world, Hedy Lamarr proved her value as far more than just another pretty face. Think about her next time you turn on your GPS system to guide you to your destination.
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