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Humans in Tech — Hedy Lamarr

by | Mar 8, 2023 | Humans & IT

Hedy Lamarr was one of the most famous Hollywood actresses from the 1930s to the 1950s, known for her beauty and talent on the silver screen. During the 1940s, Hedy Lamarr was not only one of Hollywood’s most in-demand leading actresses but also a visionary inventor whose passion for innovation led to the creation of wireless communication technology that we now use in everyday life. 

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we explore the legacy of Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood actress and inventor whose pioneering work in wireless communication and aircraft design revolutionized the modern world. 

Early Life and Acting Career

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria. Early in her life, Hedy spent significant time discussing mechanical concepts with her father. The two often took long walks during which they talked about the mechanics of machinery, such as cars and the printing press. These conversations steered Lamarr’s mind toward a desire to understand how things work. 

Hedy Lamarr had a strong desire to become an actor from an early age and frequently indulged her love for the performing arts through imaginative play with childhood friends. This led to an early acting career in Europe during the 1930s. 

Lamarr’s acting career took off when Hollywood producer Louis B. Mayer discovered her. Mayer offered her a contract with MGM, and Larmarr made her Hollywood debut in the 1938 film “Algiers.” Over the next several years, Lamarr appeared in many successful films, including “Ziegfeld Girl” (1941), “White Cargo” (1942), and “Samson and Delilah” (1949). 

Lamarr – referred to as “The most beautiful woman in the world” – was on her way to becoming a Hollywood superstar, but she still had an inquisitive mind and would often tinker with different inventions. Between takes, Larmarr also developed ways to help make the record-setting pilot and Hollywood figure Howard Hughes’ planes faster. Her relationship with Hughes led Lamarr down a path of innovation that changed the world forever. 

The Invention of Frequency Hopping

Born in Austria to parents of Jewish ancestry, Lamarr was extremely upset by the Holocaust and Second World War. This inspired Lamarr to invent an incredible piece of Technology called Frequency Hopping. 

In collaboration with composer George Antheil, Hedy Lamarr developed the idea of Frequency Hopping to improve the security of allied radio communication during World War II. They were motivated by the need to prevent interference and jamming of radio signals to control torpedoes. 

The basic principle of Frequency Hopping is to rapidly switch the frequency of the radio signal being transmitted. This is achieved using a series of synchronized radio transmitters and receivers randomly hop between predetermined frequencies. The Frequency Hopping pattern is known only to the transmitter and receiver, making it extremely difficult for an enemy to intercept or jam the signal. 

To achieve this technology, Lamarr and Antheil drew inspiration from the workings of the player piano, a musical instrument that uses a perforated paper roll to control the movement of keys. They devised a similar mechanism that would control the Frequency Hopping of radio signals. Although initially dismissed by the US Navy, this technology was eventually recognized as a groundbreaking development in wireless communication. It was eventually used during the Cuban Missile Crisis and has since been used in various applications, including modern Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

Impact on Technology

Hedy Lamarr’s Frequency Hopping invention laid the groundwork for some of the most widely used modern technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS. WiFi routers use Frequency Hopping to transmit data wirelessly between devices. This technology has revolutionized the way we use the internet, allowing us to connect from anywhere in the world without the need for cables. Similarly, Bluetooth technology has changed the way we connect devices wirelessly. 

GPS technology, which is used in navigation systems in cars and smartphones, also utilizes Frequency Hopping. GPS devices can determine a user’s location and provide directions to their destination by constantly transmitting and receiving signals from satellites in orbit. The technology makes it easier to navigate and explore new places confidently and can also be used in emergencies to locate people needing urgent help. 

Recognition and Legacy

Hedy Lamarr’s inventions were ahead of their time and were not fully appreciated until years later. Her Frequency Hopping technology, while initially dismissed, has become a cornerstone of modern wireless communication. Similarly, her aircraft designs with Howard Hughes were not fully realized until decades later. 

Later in her life, Lamarr was recognized for her contributions to science and technology. In 1997, she was presented with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, and in 2014 she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. These awards are a testament to her legacy as a wireless communication and technology pioneer. 

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