Home » Media Center » Blog » Hedy Lamarr: The Hollywood Actress Who Changed Wireless Technology

Hedy Lamarr: The Hollywood Actress Who Changed Wireless Technology

March 2024

As a 100% woman-owned engineering firm, JEM Engineering honors and celebrates women in STEM. This Women’s History Month, we wanted to highlight the life and career of Hedy Lamarr, a famous Hollywood star whose lesser-known achievements include essentially laying the foundations for the spectrum-hopping technology we know today as WiFi.

Jesse Russell | African Americans in STEM | JEM Engineering
Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, on November 9, 1914, began her acting career in Czech and German films in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In addition to acting, Lamarr had a keen interest in science and technology. Her first husband, Fritz Mandl, was a prominent Austrian munitions manufacturer. She accompanied Mandl to business meetings, where he conferred with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. Although her attendance at these meetings was intended to increase the likelihood of sales, they more importantly introduced her to the field of applied science, as well as nurtured her latent talent.

From Mandl’s business meetings, Lamarr learned that navies needed “a way to guide a torpedo as it raced through the water.” While radio control had originally been proposed, the concern was that the enemy might be able to jam the torpedo’s guidance system and set it off course. This concept originally sparked her interest in creating an anti-jamming solution.

Lamarr’s life and acting career eventually led her to Hollywood in the later 1930s. In Hollywood, she achieved success as a glamorous leading lady in several films, including such “Algiers” (1938) and “Samson and Delilah” (1949), for which she is most known.

During World War II, Lamarr attempted to aid in the military efforts by revisiting her previous anti-jamming technology theories.

In his previous musical experiments, Lamarr’s friend, pianist and composer George Antheil attempted synchronized note-hopping in an avant-garde piece involving multiple synchronized player pianos. Antheil’s idea in the piece was to synchronize the start time of identical player pianos with identical player piano rolls, so the pianos would be playing in time with one another.

Through their discussions, Lamarr and Antheil realized that radio frequencies could be changed similarly, using the same kind of mechanism, but miniaturized. Their invention used a piano roll to rapidly switch between 88 different frequencies, mimicking the way a player piano produces music.

George Carruthers - Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph
Although it was granted a patent in 1942, Lamarr and Antheil’s invention’s full impact on technology was not realized until much later.

Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council, whose purpose was to serve as a clearinghouse for inventions with possible military and national defense uses, and to bring these to the attention of the U.S. armed forces. However, Lamarr was reportedly told that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. After having her invention repeatedly snubbed, she eventually resigned herself to participating in a war bond-selling campaign. After the war, Lamarr continued to act in films, but struggled to find roles that matched her earlier success. She retired from acting in the 1950s and focused on her inventions and other interests.

In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award, which was given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences, business, or invention fields have significantly contributed to society. Lamarr died on January 19, 2000, in Casselberry, Florida. In 2014, she and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her contributions to technology.

Hedy Lamar left behind a legacy as both a Hollywood icon and a pioneering inventor whose work continues to make an impact. Lamarr and Antheil’s modern spread-spectrum communication technology is used in many wireless communication systems today, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Latest Posts

10 Factors that Affect Antenna Performance

10 Factors that Affect Antenna Performance

We get a lot of inquiries regarding antenna performance in various settings, one of them being, “how far will the antenna propagate?” In this post, we describe some of the many factors that affect antenna performance.

read more
Living Legends: James West and Jesse Russell

Living Legends: James West and Jesse Russell

Every February, JEM Engineering honors the the African American Engineers who have made lasting contributions in STEM. This year, we’re excited to spotlight two living legends: James Edward West and Jesse Eugene Russell.

read more