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Hedy Lamarr: The Mother of Wi-Fi and Hollywood

Casey Mazzotti

January 24, 2021

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In a time and place where women were meant to be seen and not heard, when women needed to decide if they were beautiful or smart and were minimized to one-dimensional roles, Hedy Lamarr balked and was simultaneously gorgeous and genius. Society has only recently recognized her as someone other than a Hollywood starlet; as the co-inventor of frequency hopping and the "Mother of Wi-fi", Hedy Lamarr is an icon not just for her starring roles in Oscar-nominated films, but for her intellect and genius in developing the technology that paved the way for wireless communications to exist.

Rise to Fame

Originally Hedwig Eva Kiesler, Lamarr was born in Vienna, Austria in 1914, to a successful bank director and concert pianist, and she was introduced to both the sciences and the arts at a young age. At 5 years old, she was already taking apart and reassembling a music box to figure out how the machine functioned. She was likely influenced by her father, who would take long walks with her to discuss the inner workings of machines, like the printing press.

At age 16, Lamarr was discovered by director Max Reinhardt and began studying acting - she appeared in her first small role in a German film, Money on the Street (translated). Ultimately, she gained recognition for her controversial role in the film, Ecstasy.

Shortly thereafter, Hedy married her first husband, a successful Austrian munitions dealer, Fritz Mandl, at the age of 19. Lamarr recognized early on that she had entered into a union tightly controlled by her husband; at one point, he attempted to accumulate and destroy all copies of the movie, Ecstasy, due to her role. Of the marriage, she remarked:

"I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife … He was the absolute monarch in his marriage … I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded"and imprisoned"having no mind, no life of its own."


It has been reported that Hedy escaped this marriage by bicycle in 1937, at which time she fled to London. It was there she first met the co-founder of MGM Studios, Louis B. Mayer, and she moved to Hollywood to continue her acting career.

Initially upon moving to Hollywood, Hedy met and dated Howard Hughes, successful aviator and businessman. He gifted her a small set of equipment which she used to work on her inventions in between takes on set, and she gifted him a better wing design for his planes by combining characteristics of the fastest known fish and birds. During this time, she also designed an upgraded stoplight and a tablet that dissolved in water to create a Coca-cola-like soda.

Becoming the "Mother of Wi-Fi"

On the surface, the 1940s was a banner decade for Lamarr for more reasons than one; she gained Hollywood starlet status by appearing in the Oscar-nominated films Algiers and Samson and Delilah; she met men who supported her intellectual genius, and it was in this decade that she and George Antheil, a well-known composer, together designed "frequency hopping," the foundation for wireless communication.

Originally designed by Hedy to guide torpedoes to their intended targets during WWII, "frequency hopping" involved having both the transmitter and receiver hopping to new frequencies together - it prevented interception of radio waves, meaning the torpedo could find its target unimpeded. George Antheil put together the practical model for this design, and, together, they sought a patent in 1942. They approached the Navy, which declined to implement their design, calling it cumbersome.

Instead, Hedy used her celebrity to assist in the war effort by selling war bonds.

After the war ended, in the mid-1950s, Hedy became an American citizen and the military began using lightweight transistors. The Navy then shared Lamarr’s design with a contractor, creating technology to detect submarines - this was just the beginning of her design being used to create bigger and better tech. By 1962, the ships being used to blockade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis were all using frequency hopping to guide their torpedoes.

While the patent, held by both Lamarr and Antheil, didn’t expire until 1959, neither received any compensation for the use and implementation of their work.

According to "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story," a documentary about Hedy’s life and genius, frequency-hopping alone is estimated to be worth $30 billion.

Late Life & Awards

Hedy later developed an addiction to "pep pills" supplied by her studio while making films, driving her increasingly erratic behavior and, ultimately leading to run-ins with law enforcement. She then lived a modest, reclusive lifestyle and was only beginning to be recognized for her work shortly before her death in 2000.

In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation jointly awarded both Lamarr and Antheil with the Pioneer Award, and she was the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

During her lifetime, Hedy never stopped inventing. Her daughter, Denise Loder, continues to recognize her mother’s genius and barrier-busting ways. She commended both Lamarr and Bette Davis for being two of the first women to both own production companies and tell stories through a female perspective in films.

Denise said of her mother, "She was so ahead of her time with being a feminist...She has never been called that, but she certainly was."

From the woman whose beauty was so striking it inspired two of the most iconic cartoon beauties, Snow White and Catwoman, she certainly had brains to match; sadly, she was never appropriately recognized and compensated for her work in founding a new, world-changing technology - the "Mother of Wi-Fi" was a woman who paid no mind to whatever glass ceiling was in place; she was both extraordinarily creative and analytic, and she remains an icon for aspiring actors, inventors, and women everywhere.

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