This week, Google honored actress Hedy Lamaar, once promoted by the co-founder of MGM as “the world’s most beautiful woman,” with a Google Doodle on what would have been her 101st birthday.
I knew Hedy Lamarr was an actress. I knew she was a Blazing Saddles punchline. But I had no idea that she was also an inventor.
The Austrian-born beauty appeared in numerous roles, but she grew bored with the glamorous Hollywood scene of the 1940s. A biographer states that she much preferred a quiet intellectual discussion at home with intelligent friends over drinking and star-studded parties.
Lamarr longed to help the war effort — she soon thought up an idea to protect passenger cruise liners from German torpedoes. She received a patent in 1942 for a “Secret communication system,” which utilized frequency hopping to gain control over the normally free-running torpedoes. The patent was patriotically donated to the U.S. Navy … which promptly shoved it into storage and told Lamarr that she was better off selling kisses in exchange for war bonds. She raised $7 million in one night. She also never received a penny for her patent.
However, her patent (by that time, expired) was revisited in the 1950s. Engineers borrowed its ideas for the spread-spectrum technology eventually used during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Today, the basis of her technology is used in Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi, and most digital devices that communicate wirelessly.
Lamarr’s other inventions included an improved stoplight, and an unsuccessful dissolvable soda tablet that tasted more like Alka-Seltzer than Coca-Cola.
She — along with the technology’s co-creator, composer George Antheil — was honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation with their Pioneer Award in 1997 for her “significant and influential contributions to the development of computer-based communications.” Her reported response: “It’s about time.”
Germany, Switzerland, and her home country of Austria have designated Lamarr’s birthday, Nov. 9, as Inventors’ Day. The day encourages people to develop their own ideas for changing the world for the better, and also serves to remind people of forgotten inventors. Or, maybe, the ones people never knew about in the first place.