The story of Hedy Lamarr: how a self-taught immigrant invented Wi-Fi - ForumDaily
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The story of Hedy Lamarr: how a self-taught immigrant invented Wi-Fi

Hedy Lamarr, a Jewish immigrant, was not only a glamorous movie star, but also a gifted, self-taught inventor. Hedy invented Wi-Fi technology and developed a system capable of sinking Nazi submarines, reports History.

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Photo: iStock.com/:alvarez

In the 1940s, few Hollywood actresses were more famous and beautiful than Hedy Lamarr. She has starred in dozens of films and graced the covers of every Hollywood celebrity magazine. But few people knew that Hedy was also a gifted inventor. One of the technologies she invented laid a key foundation for future communications systems, including GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Harvard scientists have created a 'smart' liquid: what it does and why it is needed, read in our article.

“Hedy always felt that people did not value her for her intelligence, that her beauty was a hindrance,” noted Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who wrote a biography of Hedy. Read about 10 inventions that took the lives of their creators in our material.

On the subject: His Invention Saved Millions of Lives, But You've Probably Never Heard The Man's Name

After working 12 or 15 hours a day at MGM Studios, Hedy often skipped Hollywood parties or carousing with one of her many admirers and sat down at her "invention desk" instead.

“Hedy had a drafting table and a whole wall filled with engineering books. It was a serious hobby,” said Rhodes, author of Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

Although Hedy Lamarr was not a certified engineer or mathematician, she knew how to ingeniously find a way out of a situation. Most of her inventions were practical solutions to everyday problems. For example, a box for storing used napkins or a glow-in-the-dark dog collar.

It was during World War II that she developed the “frequency switch,” an invention now recognized as a fundamental technology for secure communications. Hedy received recognition for this innovation only at a very mature age.

Hedy Lamarr's childhood in Austria

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Kiesler in Vienna, Austria in 1914. She was the only child in a wealthy secular Jewish family.

Already at a young age, Hedy had the natural curiosity of an engineer. During long walks along the busy streets of Vienna, her father explained to her how trams worked and how the power plant generated electricity. At the age of five, the girl took apart a music box and put it back together.

Hedy's film debut

Even if she wanted to become a professional engineer or scientist, Viennese girls in the 1930s could not do it. Instead, young Hedy set her sights on the film industry.

She started out as a screenwriter, but quickly earned several minor roles.

Austrian director Max Reinhardt took Hedy to Berlin. There she starred in several films, and at the age of 18 she received a role in the piquant film “Ecstasy” by Czech director Gustav Mahaty. The film was condemned by Pope Pius XI.

Reinhardt called Hedy “the most beautiful woman in Europe,” because even before Ecstasy, the young actress attracted the attention of theater directors throughout Europe. It was during a performance of the popular play Sissi in Vienna that Hedy attracted the attention of a wealthy Austrian military magnate named Fritz Mandl. They married in 1933, but the union was stifling from the start. Mandl forced his wife to accompany him when he made deals with clients, particularly officials from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, including Mussolini.

“She sat at dinner, tired of discussing bombs and torpedoes, and at the same time she was consumed by it,” Rhodes said. - Of course, no one asked her any questions. She was supposed to be beautiful and silent. It was perhaps through this experience that she acquired considerable knowledge of how torpedo guidance works.”

In 1937, Hedy fled her husband and Austria, a country that supported Adolf Hitler's anti-Jewish policies.

New country and new name

Hedy landed in London, where Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios was actively buying up the contracts of Jewish actors who could no longer safely work in Europe. She met with Mayer, but refused his unfavorable offer of $125 a week for an exclusive contract with MGM. Hedy made a smart move and booked a ticket to the United States on the luxury liner SS Normandie, the same ship that Mayer was on on his way home.


“She showed off on deck and played tennis with the handsome guys on board,” Rhodes explained. “By the time they got to New York, Hedy had made a much better deal with Mayer—$500 a week—on the condition that she learn to speak English in six months.”

Mayer had one more requirement - she had to change her name: Hedwig Kiesler sounded too German. Mayer's wife was a fan of 1920s actress Barbara La Marr (who died tragically at age 29), so Mayer decided that his new MGM actress would now be known as Hedy Lamarr.

Actress by day, inventor by night

It didn't take long for Hedy to become Hollywood's brightest new star. The MGM machine forced her to appear in several feature films a year throughout the 1940s.

“Any girl can be charming,” she once quipped. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

As much as Hedy enjoyed her Hollywood fame, she still pursued her hobby. The inventor found a kindred spirit in Howard Hughes, a film producer and aeronautical engineer.

Hedy did most of her work at home at her engineering desk, where she sketched creative solutions to practical problems. In addition to a tissue box and light-up dog collar, Hedy designed a special shower seat for seniors that slides out safely from the bathtub.

“She was an inventor,” Rhodes said. — If you have ever met real inventors, they are often people without a particularly deep education. These are those who think about the world in a certain way. When they notice that something isn’t working right, instead of just complaining, they figure out how to fix it.”

Lamarr challenges German submarines

In 1940, Hedy was dismayed by the news coming out of Europe, where the Nazi war machine was steadily conquering new territory and German U-boats were wreaking havoc in the Atlantic.

This problem was much more difficult to solve, but Hedy was determined to contribute to the war effort.

The turning point came when the actress met a man at a dinner party. George Antheil was an avant-garde composer who lost his brother in the early days of the war. Antheil and Hedy turned out to be kindred spirits—two brilliant, if unconventional, minds determined to find a way to defeat Hitler. But how?

It was then, Rhodes believes, that Hedy drew on the knowledge she had gained years earlier during boring client dinners with her first husband in Vienna.

“She knew about torpedoes,” Rhodes explained. “She knew there was a problem with aiming the torpedoes. If the British had been able to destroy the German submarines with torpedoes fired from ships or aircraft, they could have prevented all this carnage.”

The answer was clearly some kind of radio-controlled torpedo, but how to stop the Germans from simply jamming the radio signal? Hedy and Antheil's creative decision was inspired, according to Rhodes, by their mutual love of the piano.

Lamarr and Antheil used music

During the night's brainstorming session, Hedy and Antheil played a music game. They would sit down at the piano together: one person would start playing a popular song, and the other would play along when he recognized the tune.

It was here, according to Rhodes, that Hedy and Antheil first came up with the idea of ​​frequency hopping. If two musicians are playing the same music, they can hit the keys together in sync. However, if the person listening doesn't know the song, they have no idea what keys will be pressed next. In other words, the "signal" was hidden in constantly changing frequencies.

How did this apply to radio-controlled torpedoes? The Germans could easily jam one radio frequency rather than a constantly changing “symphony” of frequencies.

Hedy wanted to invent a method of synchronizing communications between a torpedo and its controller on a nearby ship.

“The signal between the ship and the torpedo will be continuous, even if it switches to a new frequency every fraction of a second. As a result, anyone who tries to jam the signal will not know where he is at any given moment, because he will "jump" all over the radio," Rhodes said.

Hedy called her smart system “frequency hopping.”

Navy rejects invention

Hedy and Antheil developed their idea with the help of a wartime agency called the National Council of Inventors, which was tasked with applying civilian inventions to military purposes. The council put Hedy and Antheil in touch with a Caltech physicist who figured out the complex electronics to make it all work.

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When the patent for frequency hopping was completed in 1942, Antheil proposed the idea to the US Navy, which did not take to the idea.

Hedy and Antheil's patent was locked in a safe and classified as "top secret" until the end of the war. The two artists returned to their day jobs thinking that their era of invention had come to an end. Little did they know that their patent would get a second life.

Frequency hopping technology gains momentum

In the 1950s, electrical manufacturer Sylvania used frequency hopping to create a secure communications system with submarines. And in the early 1960s, the technology was deployed on US warships to prevent signal jamming during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Antheil died in 1959, but Hedy continued to live, unaware that her brilliant idea was about to become a big success.

When car phones first became popular in the 1970s, carriers used frequency hopping to allow hundreds of subscribers to use limited radio spectrum. The same technology was implemented in the very first cellular networks.

By the 1990s, frequency hopping had become so ubiquitous that it had become a technology standard required by the FCC for secure radio communications.

That's why Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and other important technologies are inherently based on an idea conceived by Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil.

“This is a really deep and fundamental idea,” Rhodes said. “It has wide application everywhere.”

Over time, Hedy's Hollywood fame faded and she moved to Florida. There, the actress continued to tinker with new inventions, including a more “driver-friendly” traffic light.

It wasn't until she was 80 years old that a group of engineers realized that the "Hedwig Kiesler Mackay" listed in the frequency hopping patent was none other than Hollywood legend Hedy Lamarr.

“Hedy didn’t want money, but she wanted recognition,” Rhodes concluded. “She was very angry that no one gave her credit for this important invention. In the 1990s, she finally received an award for her contributions. Hedy being Hedy - what did she say? She said, 'Well, just in time.'

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