Written - February 2022
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler of Jewish heritage in Vienna in 1914, the Hollywood starlet Hedy Lamarr could seem an unlikely choice for my all-time hero of technology, but you might be surprised to discover that her legacy lives on in your life and mine, every single day.
After fleeing Europe and her husband’s ties to the Nazis in 1937, she was spotted by the then head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and impressed him enough to land a lucrative contract with the studio, which dubbed her “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Her first American film “Algiers” was a box office hit.
She starred in thirty Hollywood films between 1938 and 1958, starring alongside such greats as Clark Gable, James Stewart and Spencer Tracy. She dated John F. Kennedy before he became US President, and is often cited as the inspiration for both Snow White and Catwoman.
Acting however was only one of her passions, with another being science and she showed aptitudes for mechanics and chemistry from the age of five. Despite no formal training in the sciences, she began working with aviation tycoon Howard Hughes who actively supported her “tinkering” hobbies, and he put his own scientists at her disposal for projects she wanted to work on.
During World War II she discovered that US radio-controlled torpedoes, which were an emerging technology at the time, could easily be jammed and set off course, so she began thinking about possible solutions to the problem. This led to the development of a device that made radio signals impossible to detect by sending them through rapidly-changing frequencies. “It was so obvious” she said “they shot torpedoes in all directions and never hit the target so I invented something that does.” She patented the technology with pianist and inventor friend, George Antheil, in 1940.
There were no opportunities to have the technology adopted by the U.S. Navy during World War II, primarily because the Navy weren’t interested in adopting technologies that had not been developed in-house. In 1962 though, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, her technology was finally installed on U.S. Naval ships. Lamarr though did not discover that her work was being used by the Navy until 1969, but by that time her patent had expired and she was unable to sue.
A victim of the attitudes of the times, Lamarr was never paid or recognised for her work for the U.S. Navy, and lived her later years in seclusion in Florida. Her technology lived on however and “spread spectrum”, which provides wider bandwidth for radio signals, and “frequency hopping” became hugely important and were used to create GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Today Hedy Lamarr’s technologies are still used in the devices we use at home and at work every day, and the market value of her invention is said to be in excess of $30 billion. In 1997 the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave her a Pioneer Award and she also received the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award for her lifetime achievements in the sciences.
Lamarr died in January 2000 of heart disease, aged 85. In 2014 she was posthumously inducted into the U.S.A.’s National Inventors Hall of Fame, and a memorial to Lamarr was unveiled in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. Clearly though her legacy lives on, and our modern lives would simply not be possible in the way they are without her and her inventions. While there are many people who count as heroes of technology, her struggles, determination, and brilliance will always elevate her as my own personal hero.