Today’s post comes from Lori Norris, an archives technician a the National Archives at College Park.
As we face the uncertainty of the current COVID-19 pandemic, one helpful invention has eased the anxieties of staying at home and assists us daily with our new teleworking lives. Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, allows us to stay plugged into the internet while roaming our homes for the perfect spot to type up emails or binge-watch our favorite shows. As with the invention of the computer, the technology that made Wi-Fi possible came about during another devastating global event: World War II. The head inventor wasn’t a scientist or engineer, but a famous Hollywood actress with an obsession with tinkering.
Hedy Lamarr made it big in acting before ever moving to the United States. Her role in the Czech film Ecstasy got international attention in 1933 for containing scandalous, intimate scenes that were unheard of in the movie industry up until then.
Backlash from her early acting career was the least of her worries, however, as tensions began to rise in Europe. Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, grew up in a Catholic household in Austria, but both of her parents had a Jewish heritage. In addition, she was married to Friedrich Mandl, a rich ammunition manufacturer with connections to both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Her time with Friedrich Mandl was bittersweet. While the romance quickly died and Mandl became very possessive of his young wife, Lamarr was often taken to meetings on scientific innovations in the military world. These meetings are said to have been the spark that led to her becoming an inventor. As tensions in both her household and in the world around her became overwhelming, she fled Europe and found her way to the United States through a job offer from Hollywood’s MGM Studios.
Lamarr became one of the most sought-after leading women in Hollywood and starred in popular movies like the 1939 film Algiers, but once the United States began helping the Allies and preparing to possibly enter the war, Lamarr almost left Hollywood forever. Her eyes were no longer fixed on the bright lights of the film set but on the flashes of bombs and gunfire. Lamarr wanted to join the Inventors’ Council in Washington, DC, where she thought she would be of better service to the war effort.
Lamarr’s path to inventing the cornerstone of Wi-Fi began when she heard about the Navy’s difficulties with radio-controlled torpedoes. She recruited George Antheil, a composer she met through MGM Studios, in order to create what was known as a Secret Communication System.
The idea behind the invention was to create a system that constantly changed frequencies, making it difficult for the Axis powers to decode the radio messages. The invention would help the Navy make their torpedo systems become more stealthy and make it less likely for the torpedoes to be rendered useless by enemies.
Lamarr was the brains behind the invention, with her background knowledge in ammunition, and Antheil was the artist that brought it to life, using the piano for inspiration. In 1942, under her then-married name, Hedy Kiesler Markey, she filed for a patent for the Secret Communication System, patent case file 2,292,387, and proposed it to the Navy.
The first part of Lamarr and Antheil’s Secret Communication System story did not see a happy Hollywood ending. The Navy refused to accept the new technology during World War II. Not only did the invention come from a civilian, but it was complex and ahead of its time.
As the invention sat unused, Lamarr continued on in Hollywood and found other ways to help with the war effort, such as working with the USO. It wasn’t until Lamarr’s Hollywood career came to an end that her invention started gaining notice.
Around the time Lamarr filmed her last scene with the 1958 film The Female Animal, her patented invention caught the attention of other innovators in technology. The Secret Communication System saw use in the 1950s during the development of CDMA network technology in the private sector, while the Navy officially adopted the technology in the 1960s around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The methods described in the patent assisted greatly in the development of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Despite the world finally embracing the methods of the patent as early as the mid-to-late 1950s, the Lamarr-Antheil duo were not recognized and awarded for their invention until the late 1990s and early 2000s. They both received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award, and in 2014 they were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Hedy Lamarr never had any formal training yet was able to incorporate her life experiences and artistic imagination into one of the most important inventions of the technological age. During a dark, chaotic time, she was able to adopt the inspiration to try to help change the world for the better.
As we sit at home, waiting for the war against COVID-19 to reach its turning point, some may draw inspiration from Hedy Lamarr and ask themselves: what can I create today?