Happy 100th birthday, Hedy Lamarr, movie star who paved way for Wi-Fi

This actress from Hollywood's Golden Age reminds us of a time when women were some of the leading unsung tech innovators.

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Steven Musil
2 min read

Hedy Lamarr, shown in this studio publicity still for the 1938 movie "Algiers," developed wireless technology still in use today.

Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood actress known for her good looks and classic come-hither bedroom gaze, also played a key role in developing cell phone technology widely used today.

Born 100 years ago today in Vienna, the actress made a lesser-known contribution to wireless communication when she tried to defuse a potential military threat during World War II. To prevent remote-controlled torpedoes from being hijacked, she helped develop an early version of spread spectrum communication, which is part of the basis for wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Her successes remind us that women were central to the invention of many technologies we appreciate today. Over the past year, many tech giants have released demographic figures showing just how few women, and minorities, are among their collective workforce. Changing those trends has become a central issue, particularly among educators and industry critics.

Some of the debate has focused on convincing women to focus their time on STEM education, earning degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. But Lamarr is a reminder you don't have to be a tech whiz to change technology.

Already a screen actress in Europe at age 18, Lamarr got her first exposure to applied science when she married Friedrich Mandl, an armaments manufacturer 14 years her senior. He was said to be extremely possessive and controlling of his younger bride. Mandl was reportedly so controlling that he forbade her from pursuing her film career and kept her a virtual prisoner in their home. It was during this time that Mandl demanded Lamarr accompany him to meetings with business associates where military technologies were discussed.

After divorcing Mandl, Lamarr moved to Hollywood to resume her acting career, working with the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner during MGM's "Golden Age," according to an "official" fan site biography. It was during this time that Lamarr met George Antheil, a composer, author and inventor Lamarr reportedly consulted on how to improve her figure.

The topic of their conversations soon turned to radio-controlled torpedoes, a key WWII weapon that could be easily detected and jammed by broadcasting interference. Harnessing the torpedo knowledge she acquired from the meetings she attended with her former husband, Lamarr began collaborating with Antheil on frequency hopping, a method for rapidly switching among random synchronized frequencies.

The pair's plan was to use a piano roll to randomly switch the signal sent from the control center to the torpedo in short bursts among 88 frequencies, much like the 88 keys on a piano's keyboard. The pair's "Secret Communications System" was granted US Patent No. 2,292,387 in 1942, but the technique was never adopted by the military during the war.

The patent resurfaced in the 1950s while private companies were developing a wireless technology called CDMA. Lamarr's method is still in use today by cell networks, Bluetooth devices and Wi-Fi.

Almost three years before Lamarr died in 2000, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave her an award for her contribution to wireless communications.