Best known in the early days of Hollywood as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Hedy Lamarr’s life offscreen showed that she was an inventor at heart.
The rise of Silicon Valley rockstars like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg has sparked interest renewed interest in the inventors of our favorite technologies. But while we might sometimes wonder about the original inventor of the iPod and Facebook, it’s unlikely we think about the early innovations that paved the way for our favorite, modern-day tech gadgets and gizmos. It’s often the case that these origins are in far-flung and unexpected places.
For example, the founding principle of wireless communication — radio hopping — was invented decades ago during World War II, long before computers, tablets, or smartphones had even been conceptualized, by an actress far more famous for her looks than her scientific achievements. Hedy Lamarr was marketed by studios as the “most beautiful woman in the world,” and rarely received dynamic talking roles in her films. But beneath that largely silent exterior was an inventor who paved the way for one of the most influential technologies in history: the mobile phone.
Who is Hedy Lamarr?
Born and raised in Austria in 1914, Hedy Lamarr showed an early interest in the sciences before she pursued a career in acting. After a brief stint in the German film industry, she went to London to meet Louis Mayer of MGM Studios, who refused to make a deal to Lamarr’s liking. Instead of caving, she walked out and boarded a ship headed straight to the U.S., a boat that happened to be carrying mega-producer Louis Mayer.
During the journey, Lamarr won Louis Mayer over and walked away with a lucrative deal — the equivalent to about $3,000 a week for seven years. Less than a year later, she starred in the 1938 hit Algiers opposite Charles Boyer, and her place in movie stardom was secured.
Hollywood bored the actress, however, who preferred intimate dinners with intelligent conversation to star-studded, boozy parties. So Lamarr installed a grafting table in her home and began inventing, looking anywhere and everywhere for inspiration. Among her early creations were an improved tissue box and a new traffic signal, neither of which garnered much attention.
World War II
At the beginning of WWII, as German submarines began targeting passenger cruise lines, Hedy Lamarr felt compelled to invest her time and energy into helping the Allies. She met composer George Antheil, and the two focused in on developing a better way to control torpedoes, according to CBS News. Antheil and Lamarr found inspiration in synchronized player pianos and started toying with a way to guide the weapons with radio signals. But there is a problem with radio signals: they can be jammed.
Lamarr knew that if the transmitter and receiver simultaneously hopped around from frequency to frequency, the signal would be nearly impossible to isolate and jam. And so was born her rendition of the “spread-spectrum radio.” The two tinkerers received a patent for the invention and eagerly tried to share it with the Navy. Unfortunately, the Navy proved too stubborn to accept their suggestion, and instead tossed the patent into the file pile, where it remained untouched for years.
The Navy later dusted off the idea for use in “sonobuoys” that detect enemy submarines and transmit the information to airplanes flying overhead. The idea quickly spread to the private sector and found application in technologies everywhere, but Lamarr was not recognized for her contribution until 50 years later.
Today, the same principles of frequency hopping are used in most of our mobile technologies, from GPS, to military communication systems, to our wireless phones — we have Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil to thank for Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth, elements critical to our smartphones and tablets.
Lamarr’s story highlights an easy-to-forget fact: many of the greatest inventions come not from industry experts, but from novices, everyday people looking for creative ways to improve the world. Luckily, there are accessible tools today that facilitate this kind of creative development, from open source projects to affordable software. Platforms like Infinite Monkeys provide a great outlet for those looking to develop their own mobile app, regardless of budget or coding experience.