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Even if you’re not an old movie buff, the name Hedy Lamarr likely conjures images of glamorous red carpets, camera flashes, and the Hollywood sign. After all, Lamarr captivated audiences of the 1930s and 1940s with her beauty—even serving as the inspiration for Disney’s portrayal of Snow White and the Catwoman of DC Comics. But what should make Lamarr a household name is not her extraordinary looks and acting prowess, but her legacy as an inventor. The WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS technology you enjoy today has its roots in her 1942 patent for “frequency hopping.”

Born in Vienna in 1914, Lamarr escaped Nazi Germany in 1937. While in London, she met Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studies, who took her to Hollywood. Although her movie career was promising, her brain was drawn to inventions, a pastime encouraged by her new friend Howard Hughes. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Lamarr aids the war effort

Her inventions became more than a hobby when she met the composer George Antheil, who shared her curiosity and spirit of innovation. As World War II raged, Lamarr and Antheil worked to develop a communication system that would allow torpedoes to reach their targets undetected through the use of “frequency hopping.” Essentially, the invention made it possible for a radio guidance transmitter and torpedo receiver to jump receivers simultaneously and thus keep the enemy guessing. In August 1942, Lamarr received U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 for the concept, but the Navy had already deemed it too complicated for use. Lamarr turned her focus to using her celebrity to sell war bonds in support of the war effort.

That didn’t mean the Navy had forgotten about frequency hopping. The idea was shared with contractors who then expanded on it—and the ships involved in the Cuban missile crisis blockade all employed frequency hopping. Lamarr and Antheil received no payment. Frequency hopping went on to be a key component of WiFi and Bluetooth, preventing interference from multiple users using the same signals.

Lamarr’s efforts were finally recognized in 1997 when she received the Sixth Annual Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She reportedly said, “It’s about time.”

Photo: Hayk_Shalunts / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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