History Historical Badasses

We have scientist and actress Hedy Lamarr to thank for Wi-FI and GPS

Hedy Lamarr once stated, “Confidence is something you’re born with. I know I had loads of it even at the age of 15.”

It is clear from this quote alone that Hedy Lamarr was a persistent woman. She is kind of who I want to be when I grow up. I for sure need this much confidence in everything that I do. In all seriousness, Hedy Lamarr definitely seemed like a complete badass. Not only was she a successful and gorgeous actress, but she also had an incredible mind and is responsible for an invention that greatly contributed to how we are able to communicate securely today. Her story is super cool, ready?

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Austria. Both her parents were Jewish. By the age of 17, she starred in her first film in Germany called Gelf Auf der Strasse. By 1933, she began receiving attention due to her performance and gorgeous looks when she starred in the film, Ecstasy. Though, the film sparked controversy and was pulled from theatersEcstasy is known as one of the first films to portray sexual intercourse and nudity without being strictly a pornographic film and Lamarr was the first woman to imitate an orgasm on-screen. So, at the time of its release, it was deemed quite scandalous. I wonder what people during the time would have thought of Fifty Shades of Grey then?

Despite the initial controversy, the film gained attraction, and Lamarr received international attention from the project. Before World War II, she signed a contract in Hollywood with Metro Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios after leaving her husband of four years, a wealthy military arms merchant named Friedrich Mandl. He was said to be controlling and was a supporter of fascism. I see why this did not work out. She attended many of her husband’s business meetings and companied him to his laboratory dedicated to working on building arms but Lamarr did not support her husband’s fascist political views. Understandably, she went to the United States to flee from him and continue her career.

In Hollywood, she officially changed her name to Hedy Lamarr to pay homage to silent film star Barbara La Marr. In 1938, she starred in her first Hollywood film, Algiers, a box-office success. Lamarr’s performance and beauty were both highly praised. The film was an inspiration for the film Casablanca, whose screenwriters originally had Hedy Lamarr in mind when writing the script for the film. She continued her 28 year-long acting career with films like Lady of the Tropics(1939), Tortilla Flat (1942), The Strange Woman (1946), and A Lady Without Passport (1950). She definitely seemed like a busy woman, if you ask me!

[Image Description: Hedy with Spencer Tracy in “I Take This Woman”.] via Hackaday
During the midst of a successful and growing acting career, Lamarr also pursued her interests in science and technology. Lamarr had been interested in technology and inventing from an early age. At the mere age of five, she disassembled her radio and put it back together. I do not know about you, but I think I was working on mastering tying my shoes at the age of five. Despite not pursuing an education in science and technology, she never let go of her interest in those fields. She did not let her packed acting career stop her from doing something that she loved. I think that this is something that should be admired because we all know how hobbies and other things that we love to do can easily take a back seat when life gets busy.

In the early years of World War II, Lamarr designed the “Secret Communication System,” and George Antheil created the practical model. The “Secret Communication System” was designed to have signals change radio frequencies in order to keep enemies from decoding and blocking messages. That sounds pretty impressive to me! Their invention was intended to prevent Allied torpedoes from being detected by the Nazis during the war. This communication system design today is known as “frequency hopping” because the signals hop frequencies to avoid third-party interference. In 1942, she and George Antheil received a patent for their signaling device.

[Image Description: A still from the documentary, Bombshell, by Alexandra Dean.] via the New Yorker
The two showed the design to U.S. Navy engineers, but it was initially rejected. However, the Navy engineers later shared the concept with a contractor that was meant to design and create a sonobuoy, which is a small buoy with sonar that is ejected into the water from an aircraft. Lamarr’s design was ultimately used as an important springboard and starting point for other ideas. It became an important steppingstone in maintaining secure communications for the military and everyday communications technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. So, the next time you ask for a Wi-Fi password or plug in an address into your GPS, you should say a quick thank you to Hedy Lamarr. I know that I will!

Despite having a patent, she never received compensation for her design because the patent on “frequency hopping” ended before her initial designs were expanded on a widespread scale. She got to see her work be expanded on throughout her life but, it was not until 1997 that Lamarr’s work received recognition and she was honored with the Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. To me, it remains important to share her legacy and talk about the work she did as her designs truly helped shape how we are able to securely communicate today.

Many biographies have been written about her. Also, a miniseries starring Gal Gadot as Hedy Lamarr is in the works at AppleTV, which I, for one, am excited to see! Her “double life” as an actress and scientist made her the inspiration for many fictional characters in the past century, most recently her life served as the blueprint for the genius villain Agnes Cully/Whitney Frost in Marvel’s Agent Carter.

Although she only continued her acting career only for 28 years, she never stopped inventing until she died in 2000 at the age of 85. She worked on building things like a fluorescent dog collar and a new design for the stoplight.

Hedy Lamarr’s work and life truly speak for themselves. She should be remembered for her work as an actress, her legacy as an inventor, and her confidence as a woman.

Want to learn more? We’ve compiled a list of biographies on Hedy Lamarr, you can find it here.


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