So far, 2018 has proven itself to be the Year of the Woman. Across a wide spectrum of categories, including politics, medicine, innovation, and tech, the power of the female has been an unstoppable (and undeniable) force.
As we celebrate the women of today, it’s also important to appreciate those who came before – especially in technology. As we see more and more growth in the field, it’s important to note that without the women of yesteryear, we may not be able to move forward at the rate we are.
Hedy Lamarr: Wonder Woman of Wireless Technology
If you’re a movie buff then chances are you’ve heard of Hedy Lamarr. She’s known for being part of the “Golden Age” of cinema and starring in films like Tortilla Flat, Lady of the Tropics, Boom Town and Samson and Delilah, with the likes of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracey. While the Austrian-American actress is now a cinematic legend, little is known about her more inventive side.
Born in 1913 in Vienna, Austria, Hedy (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) was discovered by an Austrian filmmaker and moved to the States after a successful film career abroad. After landing a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer production company, she began to find another passion in the field of technology.
In 1942, while still maintaining her on-screen success, Hedy and her friend, the composer George Antheil, received a patent for an idea of a radio signaling device, or “Secret Communications System.” The system was developed to change radio frequencies in messages so that anyone who the message was not intended for would be unable to decipher it. Although the patent was awarded, and despite lobbying and fundraising efforts on their part, the Navy ultimately passed on the technology.
It was reborn in the late 1950s by Sylvania Electronic Systems Division. Lamarr’s work on spread-spectrum has played a part in many modern wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA).
The Use of Hedy’s Work in Modern Times
The system was originally designed to be used against Nazi Germany, but has since been further developed to secure other communication devices in the military and cellular phones. As communication technology grows, Lamarr and Antheil’s work still plays an important role in innovation.
Unfortunately, Lamarr wasn’t recognized for her work back in the day. In 1997, she was given the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award for her efforts. That same year she was also the first female to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, which is considered the Oscars of inventing.
“When they called her up to tell her she would get the award, her first words were, Hedy Lamarr being Hedy Lamarr, ‘Well, it’s about time.’”
After her death on January 19, 2000, at the age of 86, Lamarr’s son Anthony Loder took over to carry on her legacy. He partnered with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Rhodes to publish Hedy’s Folly, a biography depicting Lamarr’s successes throughout her life.
“She was such a creative person. I mean, nonstop solution-finding. If you talked about a problem, she had a solution,” Loder said of Lamarr.