Hedy Lamarr Helped Develop the Technology Behind Wi-Fi – All the Way Back in World War II

Photo Credit: Donaldson Collection / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Donaldson Collection / Getty Images

Hedy Lamarr is often celebrated for her captivating performances on the silver screen during Hollywood’s illustrious Golden Age, but behind her luminous facade was a brilliant mind that contributed to the advancement of technology. In this realm, she was best known for her role in the invention of frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology, and her work has left a lasting impact on the way we communicate today.

Hedy Lamarr’s acting career

Hedy Lamarr and Clark Gable as Karen Vanmeer and "Big John" McMasters in 'Boom Town'
Boom Town, 1940. (Photo Credit: FilmPublicityArchive / United Archives / Getty Images)

Born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary in November 1914 as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Heddy Lamarr captivated audiences in Europe before making the move to Hollywood. Starting out in the industry as a script girl, she began securing minor roles and ultimately caught the attention of famed producer Max Reinhardt, who brought her back to Berlin, Germany with him.

Lamarr never wound up working with Reinhardt and, instead, teamed up with Russian theater producer Alexis Granowsky, who cast her in The Trunks of Mr. O.F. (1931). Two years later, the budding actor appeared in Ecstasy (1933), which launched her onto the international stage. Despite her success, the film’s production and release led to her taking a break from the industry in the years that followed, as she’d become disillusioned with the process.

Lamarr’s entry into Hollywood came following a meeting with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, in 1937. She went on to appear alongside some of the Golden Age‘s biggest stars, including Clark Gable, James Stewart, Lana Turner, Judy Garland and Robert Taylor. She continued to act after leaving MGM in 1945 and even went on to form a production company with Jack Chertok.

From actor to inventor

Two naval officers looking through bincoulars on the deck of a ship
Officers on the lookout for enemy U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic, 1941. (Photo Credit: Post-Work / Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

However, Hedy Lamarr wasn’t just a pretty face; she possessed a curious and inventive mind. Her interest in applied science and engineering was piqued during her tumultuous first marriage to arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl – Austria’s “Merchant of Death” – who exposed her to military technology and weaponry, and she wound up developing a host of inventions. She preferred to spend her time at the drawing board, as opposed to attending lavish Hollywood parties.

Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Lamarr tried to join the National Inventors Council (NIC), but was told she’d better help the war effort by using her fame to sell war bonds. This led her to appear at several rallies, as well as USO events.

However, Lamarr knew she could help people with her inventions. This, paired with discussions she’d overheard regarding the use of torpedos at sea, led her to team up with composer George Antheil to develop a system that could prevent the enemy from jamming their guidance systems once deployed.

If successful, this would prove critical to Allied efforts in the Atlantic, where German U-boats frequently jammed the signals of torpedoes fired at them, thereby setting them off course.

Frequency-hopping and spread spectrum technology

Portrait of George Antheil
George Antheil, 1927. (Photo Credit: Berenice Abbott / A&M Penn Photography Foundation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Concerned about the implications of system jamming to the war effort, Heddy Lamar proposed a possible solution. Together with George Antheil, the actor developed a device that changed frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, known as “frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology.”

This aimed to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam. Their concept was inspired by 1) the way two pianists can perform together in sync and 2) existing technology that allowed player pianos to play in sync through the use of piano rolls.

After years of hard work, the pair patented their invention, receiving Patent No. 2,292,387 in August 1942.

The US Navy initially rejected Hedy Lamar’s invention

Shipyard workers watching Richard Spencer feed Hedy Lamarr a sandwich
Richard Spencer, a ship-fitter at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, offering Hedy Lamarr a bite of his sandwich during a war bonds tour stop, 1942. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Despite its potential, the US Navy initially rejected Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s invention when they presented it in 1942, with officials failing to see its practical wartime application. They claimed the device, described as being as small as a pocket watch, would be too large to fit within a torpedo. On top of this, they viewed Lamarr as “an alien with ties to a foreign adversarial power,” given she hadn’t yet received her American citizenship.

Another possible reason for the service’s rejection was Lamarr’s looks, with historian and biographer Richard Rhodes explaining,  “Hedy always felt that people didn’t appreciate her for her intelligence – that her beauty got in the way.”

It wasn’t until years later that the true value of Lamarr and Antheil’s invention was recognized, after the patent had expired. The technology eventually became a staple in military communications, before making its way into the civilian sector.

Delayed recognition for Hedy Lamarr

Portrait of Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr, 1944. (Photo Credit: Screen Archives / Getty Images)

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the US Navy revisited Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s invention, incorporating it into operations during the Cuban Missile Crisis. By this time, however, companies had been independently exploring the concept, meaning it was being developed across multiple fronts.

Over the years, the significance of Lamarr and Antheil’s invention only grew, forming the foundation of modern spread-spectrum communication used in civilian technology, such as cellphones, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Wi-Fi.

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In 2014, Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a long overdue recognition. Her and Antheil were also awarded the Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997.

June Steele

June Steele is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE