During awards season, many people in the U.S. have their eyes towards Hollywood, especially on the day that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the nominees for this year’s Oscars. If you looked up those nominees using a WiFi signal, then you have a different Hollywood star to thank: Hedy Lamarr.
When she was born in Vienna in 1914, her name was Hedwig Kiesler. She appeared in her first film at age 17, and had a successful career in Europe. But she found stardom under her new name when she came to the United States in 1938. She worked with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart and she was called the “world’s most beautiful woman,” but as her acting resume grew, she didn’t find enough satisfaction in her on camera work and began inventing.
Lamarr created several things, including an improved traffic light. But it was her desire to help in America’s efforts during World War II that led to her most well-known contribution: frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology.
Created with composer George Antheil, the idea was to create something that would keep radio controlled torpedoes from being jammed and veering off course. Their “secret communication system” was designed to “provide a method…which is relatively simple and reliable in operation, but at the same time is difficult to discover or decipher.” Unfortunately, it was too difficult to be implemented during World War II.
Decades later, the military looked back at Lamarr and Antheil’s system. With the invention of the transistor, it became much more feasible and began appearing on Navy ships in 1962. Eventually their design would form the basis behind the spread-spectrum technologies that power many modern devices such as cell phones, GPS, Bluetooth technology, and Wi-Fi networks.
Lamarr died in 2000 at the age of 85, but her impact on the world of wireless technology continues.
Written by Mary Ratliff