The next time you check your cell phone, join me in saying a quick thanks to Hedy Lamarr.
Best known as a Hollywood icon epitomizing the femme fatale archetype throughout the 1940s, Lamarr was also–quietly–an inventor. In addition to her leading roles in classics like Algiers, Boomtown, Samson and Delilah and Ziegfeld Girl, Lamarr collaborated with avant-garde composer George Antheil to develop spread-spectrum, or “frequency hopping” technology.
Maybe motivated by a torturous marriage in the 1930s to Friedrich Mandl, an Austrian arms dealer, Lamarr wanted to contribute to the American war effort. She tinkered on her own and then met Antheil at a party, and the two perfected a mode of frequency hopping that kept torpedo signals safe from enemy interception. But when Antheil and Lamarr presented their idea to the U.S. Navy, the pair of artists were more or less laughed off. The Navy nonetheless accepted the use of Antheil and Lamarr’s patent.
Decades later, the Navy used frequency hopping on its radios and ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis to keep communications private. Now, it’s used by wi-fi networks, and (as far as I can understand) is the reason why other people can be on my cell phone network without getting in the way of my super important text messages. It’s been only recently that Lamarr and Antheil were recognized for their scientific contributions. In 1997 they were awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award as well as the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award. The BULBIE is considered the Oscar of the inventing world, and Lamarr is the first woman to have won it. She died three years later at 86 years old, at her home near Orlando, Florida.
What I love most about Hedy Lamarr is not that she was both beautiful and brilliant. Most women are. But what makes her unique is that she was not a trained scientist. She was a self-taught hobbyist who seems to have learned first about technology while attending parties on the arm of her first husband, whom she eventually fled and divorced from abroad. Lamarr learned by playing, and followed a passion, not a paycheck (neither she nor Antheil received any financial rewards for their innovation).
Though I’m not a scientist, I think of her often when I feel I’m being underestimated, or when my DIY skills aren’t as sharp as I wish they were. Nobody expected “the most beautiful woman in the world” to forever change communications technology, but still, she persisted.
Even better, she won.