Hedy Lamarr – The woman who 80 years ago patented the technology for Wifi

If we are still fighting for equity today, can you imagine how in the 1930s an intelligent and talented woman felt bound by a patriarchal society? Well, I’m going to take advantage of the fact that my column is about Hollywood and movie stories to celebrate the 80th anniversary that actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil received a patent, number 2,292,387. Do you know what it was for? For a frequency-hopping communication system created for the two, nothing less has become the foundation for modern technologies like cordless phones and Wi-Fi. And this is not fiction!

Born in Austria, Hedy Lamarr has become one of cinema’s greatest icons, with stunning beauty and daring. In 1933, she shocked conservative audiences by starring in a female orgasm scene and appearing nude in the film Ecstasy, when she was just 18 years old and still using her real name, Hedy Kiesler.

In the same year, he defied the opposition of the family (of Jewish origin) by marrying the ammunition and weapons manufacturer, Friedrich Mandl, one of the richest men in Austria and linked to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Of course, it went wrong. In addition to living closely with the Nazi high command, Hedy was practically “kidnapped” by her controlling husband, who prevented her from working and locked her in one of his castles.

As in an action movie, the actress managed to escape (literally) and flee first to France and then England, where she was introduced to MGM owner Louis B. Mayer. A skilled negotiator, she got a higher salary than originally offered and arrived in Hollywood in 1938, with her new surname, Lamarr (so that she wouldn’t be associated with the infamous Ecstasy).

She was immediately heralded as “the most beautiful woman in the world”, working with stars such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Charles Boyer, and Victor Mature, among others, but it is Hedy Lamarr, the scientist who today remains her most famous title. Ironically, his creation was a sophisticated radio jamming device to evade Nazi radar. (The actress patented the invention using her given name, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler.)

From an early age, she was equally interested in the Arts as she was in Science. When he was playing the piano alongside composer George Antheil, they started a duet game where Hedy repeated – in another scale – the notes he played. They thus established a channel of simultaneous communication and submitted the idea to the US War Department, which refused it, in June 1941. The following year, the duo obtained the patent – on August 11, 1942 – with an initial version exchange of 88 frequencies. Too modern for the time. It was only 20 years later, in 1962, that American troops began to use the device. By this time, Hedy Lamarr‘s patent had expired and an American company “adapted” the invention. Credit to the true inventors was not given until 1997 when they received an honorable mention from the US Government “for breaking new ground on the frontiers of electronics.” Their patented device served as the basis for technologies used in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, used in mobile phones.

Hedy Lamarr died in 2000, aged 85, in Orlando, Florida. In 2020 I talked to the writer Marie Benedict, author of the biography The Only Woman, and we talked a little about this fascinating woman. Below is an excerpt from the exclusive chat with CLAUDIA.

CLAUDIA: How did you first hear about Hedy Lamarr?

MARIE: It was years ago, to be honest. I’m always looking for strong women and their stories and was having lunch with a group of friends who mentioned an actress from the golden age of Hollywood who is also an inventor. It struck me, the idea of ​​this beautiful healthy woman being so brilliant at a time when it wouldn’t be celebrated or accepted. And so I added Hedy Lamarr to my list. I keep a list of historical women that I think the stories are worth telling, and I kind of visit her story every now and then.

CLAUDIA: By the way, an excellent idea, to have this list always at hand and updated! (laughs). And how was Hedy’s trajectory?

MARIE: I delved into the research and found that the invention she made during WWII was meant to be a contribution against Nazism. But the war effort actually turned into several iterations and I knew I had to tell her story, which was very important.

CLAUDIA: And in the same list of women that Hedy Lamarr is on, you had already highlighted the story of Albert Einstein’s wife, also erased, but with significant contributions, no?

MARIE: Yeah, another unbelievable woman whose story deserves to be told, my God.

CLAUDIA: Is the list long?

MARIE: There are over 50 women. There’s still a secondary of women whose names I want to investigate, but I haven’t been able to. The main list includes women, like Einstein, who still haven’t received due recognition for the work they’ve done in Science and it’s a problem that still happens today. Hedy Lamarr was the stereotype of that. An idea that women can’t be smart enough to actually make these unbelievable inventions.

CLAUDIA: Did her physical beauty discredit her?

MARIE: She really was a one-of-a-kind beauty and it took a toll on her. I truly believe that Hedy Lamar, at any other time, would have been legendary for her invention. She was so much more than just her looks (beautiful).

CLAUDIA: And what surprised you the most that you didn’t know?

MARIE: Your past, I think. I initially thought it would be the story of this actress who made this incredible invention against all odds, but when I learned about where she grew up, being the daughter of a Jewish mother in Austria that had Hitler literally breathing down her neck, marriage to the richest man from Austria and who was a supplier of weapons to Mussolini and Hitler, as was this epic movie star, was almost unbelievable.

CLAUDIA: How she escaped her husband and all…

MARIE: Exactly, that was all shocking. As if this part of her story was already a big story and this was all before she even came to Hollywood!

CLAUDIA: She had access to the highest command while in Austria!

MARIE: Yeah, her proximity to the epicenter of WWII and continuing to fight through it all. She had access to secret conversations because she was a woman and the military, scientists, and politicians around her assumed she couldn’t understand what they were talking about. There are so many things about your early life that it’s amazing.

CLAUDIA: You tell this story a little more creatively in your book, don’t you?

MARIE: Yes. My stories are anchored in research and as much as I can, I just tell the fact. But biographies and nonfiction stories are sometimes tricky with women because we’ve only recently had access to them. There are always big gaps that even research cannot cover.

CLAUDIA: For example?

MARIE: Like, now we know that she and George [Antheil] worked together on this invention. They filed for a patent, but we don’t know the details surrounding her epiphany at that moment when she actually came up with this amazing invention. If she was a man, probably someone would have recorded it. And that’s where fiction comes in. I really hope it can help tell these women’s stories more fully.

CLAUDIA: I devoured the book because it helps you feel like you’re there.

MARIE: You know I want people to do it. Identify with feeling close to these women and sometimes it’s very difficult to achieve that with non-fiction. It’s difficult. My ultimate goal is to change the way people look at the past and then take that new perspective and use it in the present. And the best way to do that is to feel close to these women. You know, to really feel them, see them understand what they were going through, and understand how important their life’s work was.

CLAUDIA: Is Hedy Lamarr’s impact on science even more relevant than her own career in Hollywood?

MARIE: Absolutely. The invention began to become better known and she herself said that this recognition was more important to her. A better celebration of who she really was. Certainly, your legacy is like an adventure. It’s already going to outlast your movies, not least because they’ve kind of disappeared, and haven’t always stood the test of time. Some of them are so big anymore. What really had a far-reaching impact was what she did. It was revolutionary.


CLAUDIA: And how do you think she would be today?

MARIE: I think she would be delighted. Understanding all the different inventions and revolutionary changes and the way our world is run almost everything is based on the original idea that she had. The spread spectrum or radio frequency hopping technology. Whatever you call it, that nugget of an idea that was the core of your invention became the nugget of another idea. And that all of this is built up until we get to Wi-Fi. I think she would be thrilled with that.

CLAUDIA: And what does her story inspire for future generations?

MARIE: Each of these amazing women had someone in their life who believed in them unconditionally. In the case of Hedy Lamarr, it was her father, who always stimulated her intellect and her belief in herself. He made sure even at a time when it was illegal for girls to go to high school, that she went to university. It’s such a powerful lesson about the importance of support, guidance, and alliance, you know all these things that we need and still crave.

CLAUDIA: That’s why your list and books gain more weight, right?

MARIE: I feel like women are thirsty for these stories, to know that others have done important work and paved the way for us to follow. All we have to do is step on it and walk. Yes, sometimes it is a battle, absolutely, but it is possible and many of these women help other women. It’s like they’re pulling from the past, you know? We continue to rise together.

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