Wi-fi. Bluetooth. GPS. Where would we be without these technologies in today’s world? It may surprise you to know that all these avenues of tech are based on a form of secure radio communication that was invented by an iconic Hollywood star.
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Austria during the shadow of WWI in November 1914. As her beauty blossomed, she left school at the age of 15 choosing to become an actress. From the time she chose to advance her acting career by moving to the US, she took off on the silver screen with a new name: Hedy LaMarr.
She was a Hollywood bombshell—starring in countless films alongside names such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Jimmy Stewart. However, the woman coined as the “most beautiful in the world” to the public had a hobby that was only privately known. She was a brilliant inventor.
Having no formal training in engineering or chemistry, she fleshed out countless ideas in her leisure time and between film takes—including improvements to the aerodynamics of Howard Hughes’ airplane designs, an instant-dissolving “Coca-Cola tablet”, and an improved tissue box design. Her most notable invention, however, was that of an early form of frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology.
During a turning point in WWII, England was in a chokehold of Nazi U-boats. German submarines continued to dodge the allies’ torpedo attacks because the German military figured out how to hack or “jam” the signal that guided the torpedoes.
Hedy LaMarr came up with an idea that would scramble the signal that guided the torpedoes and make it more difficult for the Germans to hack. Instead of sending the signal on just one frequency as usual, Hedy LaMarr’s method made the signal intermittently jump between multiple frequencies—making it impossible to hack. This concept of secure radio communication formed the basis of spread spectrum technology—which is still used today with WiFi, cellular phones, Bluetooth, and GPS.
The patent for frequency-hopping was filed alongside pianist George Antheil, but unfortunately was confiscated because of her immigrant status. She was told to focus on her career in film and entertaining the US troops, and was never compensated for her invention believed to be worth an upwards of $30B today.
“I was different I guess,” said LaMarr in a 1990 interview. “Maybe I came from a different planet…who knows? But whatever it is, inventions are easy for me to do.”
LaMarr died in January 2000 at the age of 85, but was still inventing close to the end of her life: including a fluorescent dog collar, improvements to the Concorde jet, and an improved traffic signal. Miss LaMarr was proof that beauty and brains can indeed coexist. As she quoted, “the brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think.”