The World War II-Era Actress Who Invented Wi-Fi: Hedy Lamarr

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?

30 thoughts on “The World War II-Era Actress Who Invented Wi-Fi: Hedy Lamarr

  1. I love this story! I had no idea this beloved actress from my time had such talent. Even more amazing is that she had the determination and guts to follow through in an era when women’s thoughts and ideas were never acknowledged. I’m not surprised the Navy did not recognize the value of her contribution then and thrilled to know her invention was adopted eventually.

    How inspiring!

    1. Totally amazed by the brains and beauty of the woman Hedy Lemarr was. She is the woman all girls in school should be exposed to now. Individual freedom should be pressed on the young woman of today, not the perversions that are pushed today.

    1. she’s a woman and then the military’s greed but the president could have stepped in ? her children suffered and she still went on with hopes that the government would do the right thing even now they’ve not given her full recognition

  2. I love that she received recognition for her invention at the end of her life. It makes me so happy to know this even though her brilliant creation is better known today, 20 years after her death. What a remarkable, intelligent, resilient lady. She was the “most beautiful woman in the world” and so much more.

  3. The Jewish museum in Vienna has an exhibition on show titled Lady Bluetooth. Hedy Lamarr. They will reopen on May 31, the show ends on November 8.

  4. Even though she came up with frequency hopping as a method of avoiding detection and securing a radio link, it is a giant leap of reasoning to state that this had anything to do with present day WiFi, point to point microwave or cellular, which are also attributed to this invention. Actually a contemporary of hers, Claude Shannon at Bell Labs, was really the brains behind the development of the modern technologies of forward error correction, digital coding and spread spectrum.

    1. Lol
      despite whatever wireless technology may be in use today, it is an unfathomable leap for a major motion picture leading lady to recruit a Hollywood musician to collaborate on and successfully develop then patent ingenious defensive tech which was too advanced for the US military to even understand what it was and why they needed it.
      This was HER HOBBY.

    2. No, LaMarr and Antheil did NOT invent frequency-hopping spread spectrum! That honor should probably go to Tesla (patent #723,188, awarded in 1903, quite a few years before LaMarr was even born). The Germans already made use of it in the First World War. LaMarr and Antheil used spread spectrum in their patent. Wifi does not use frequency-hopping spread spectrum, but direct-sequence spread spectrum, invented by a Swiss guy. Frequency-hopping is easy to understand (it’s like receiver and transmitter doing channel surfing, according to a pre-agreed plan). Direct-sequence spread spectrum and other spread spectrum methods take a lot of prior training to understand, so many people are hoodwinked to believe that LaMarr is the mother of wifi. The Swiss guy who invented direct-sequence spread spectrum should probably be called the father of wifi.

  5. Modern Wi-Fi does not use frequency hopping, as Hedy Lamarr envisioned, and indeed though it was present in the original 802.11 Wi-Fi spec, it was removed in the 802.11b standard.

    However, frequency hopping IS used even today in Bluetooth, so it would be more accurate to say that without her work there may well have been no Bluetooth.

    Likewise, frequency hopping forms the basis of cellular phone networks as well, another technology that may not have become prevalent without Ms. Lamarr’s work.

    1. Wrong, the inventor of frequency-hopping spread spectrum was Tesla (patent #723,188, awarded in 1903, quite a few years before LaMarr was even born). Spread spectrum was already used by the Germans in the First World War and also the German company Telefunken before that. Even bluetooth does not use LaMarr’s idea of frequency-hopping: Bluetooth uses ADAPTIVE frequency hopping. So, bluetooth would have existed without LaMarr. As for cellular communications not existing without LaMarr, which cellular standard uses frequency hopping today?

  6. A very interesting article. It is just a shame that Frequency Hopping is not used in Wi-Fi, so the title is so wrong. Frequenc hopping was part of the original Wi-Fi standard as an option but was never used and was removed within 2 years.
    I would suggest that you look at Bluetooth which does use frequency hopping

  7. A very informative and fun read! It’ll be interesting to see what inventions arise out of our current pandemic!

  8. Having been 10 years old when the 2WW started and the Germans were sinking a lot of our ships in 42 because of not being able to scam bell radio signals the navy did use this to keep from being found in the deep blue sea ,
    Have also read that Hedy had spent 30 million during her life time when a million was worth something ,not a penny on the dollar.

  9. Her comments are so true, and I loved reading them as well, Its a pity she’s not alive today. I sure she could fix that Russian Leader, who’s up to NO good at this time …..

  10. “Invented WiFi”? Are you nuts? That’s closer to “absolutely false” than it is to “a huge exaggeration”.

    1. I don’t think you understand how any of this works. Technology builds upon itself, first it was AM Radio, then FM Radio, then Side Band, then Frequency Hopping Radio.

      Can you imagine 4 billion cellular customers all trying to occupy a single frequency around 2GHz? It simply would not work.

      You don’t get this, give it up.

  11. I’m doing Hedy Lamarr as my History Day project for school. She is a very interesting person! Did you know that she sold 25 million dollars in war bonds.

  12. I have been telling people about Hedy Lamar for years, and collected everything I could find.
    She was brilliant, before she was an actress.
    I read that Mandl took her to all the meetings he went to with high ranking Nazi’s and Germans as ” arm candy” because she was young and beautiful. But during those meetings she took in what she heard and saw. She hated Mandl, and the Nazi Party, left him and sailed to America. Supposedly, she met Antiell on the ship, and she began sketching out her ideas. She also documented the information she acquired at the Nazi meetings and turned it over to the American military.
    Scientist and technologist have said her multi-frequency hopping invention was the
    ” backbone of wireless communication”
    She excelled as an actress, singer, dancer and inventer. She was named ” The most beautiful woman in the world”
    She was my parents favorite actress.
    The only area of her life that did not work out for her was her love life. She was married seven times. It was believed that her intellect, and her popularity was more than the men could match.

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