She was called “The Most Beautiful Woman in Films” and “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” She wasn’t usually called an inventor, but she was. Hedy Lamarr, aside from being a beautiful and talented actress was the inventor and patent-holder for the “Secret Communication System”, or spread-spectrum radio.
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary on November 9, 1914. Although she had an interest in science from a young age, she decided to pursue acting and began starring in German and Czechoslovakian films at the age of 17. She was soon noticed by a Hollywood producer, who offered her a contract in Hollywood. Believing the contract to be unfair and underpaid, she declined and paid her own way to America. En route, she negotiated her own contract with the producer and agreed to work with him for a much higher fee. Once in Hollywood, Hedwig legally changed her name to Hedy Lamarr.
Lamarr went on to star with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but she quickly bored of her roles because she was rarely given speaking roles, cast primarily off her looks. Lamarr did not drink or party, preferring to exercise her mind. So, she had a drafting table built for her so that she could work on various projects. She worked on projects to improve stoplights and invented a tablet like Alka Seltzer that dissolved in water to create soda. However, Lamarr’s greatest invention was the “Secret Communication System,” which was patented in 1941.
When German submarines began targeting passenger ocean liners, Lamarr felt compelled to invent something to aid the Allied cause. With composer George Antheil, Lamarr created the spread-spectrum radio, which used changing radio frequencies to both stop enemies from detecting radio messages and solve the problem of enemies blocking radio signals on directed missiles. The spread-spectrum radio essentially created an unbreakable code to protect classified information using radio waves.
Although they received the patent in 1941, the Navy was not interested in Lamarr and Antheil’s invention when they offered it for use in World War II. It wasn’t until the Cuban Missile Crisis that the Navy implemented the technology to protect classified radio waves. Aside from military uses since the 1960s, the spread-spectrum radio proved essential to the development of wireless communications, including cell phone networks, Bluetooth, global positioning systems, and fax machines.
As often happens, Lamarr got very little credit for her invention. She and Antheil were not honored for the invention, which became essential in military security, until the 1990s. When she received the call that she had won an award for her invention, Lamarr, now in her 80s, responded, “Well, it’s about time.”
It is about time that we honored the women who do important things. So often society tells us that being smart and being pretty are mutually exclusive, but remember that “The most beautiful woman in the world” was also one of the greatest scientific minds of her generation.
“Biography.” Hedy Lamarr: The Official Site. Accessed 30 January 2016. http://www.hedylamarr.com/about/biography.html
“Hedy Lamarr: Invention of Spread Spectrum Technology.” Famous Women Inventors. Accessed 30 January 2016. http://www.women-inventors.com/Hedy-Lammar.asp
NPR Staff. “‘Most Beautiful Woman’ By Day, Inventor By Night.” NPR. 28 November 2011. Accessed 30 January 2016. http://www.npr.org/2011/11/27/142664182/most-beautiful-woman-by-day-inventor-by-night
Photo courtesy of Wayback Machine. Public Domain