This post is the first in a series of four about women who have made history in STEM; and we’re starting with a name that may surprise you: Hedy Lamarr. If you read her Wikipedia page you’ll find, if you didn’t know already, that she was an Austrian-born American film actress and that in her time she was considered to be ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. But what you most likely didn’t realise is that this Hollywood star was also the inventor of frequency-hopping spread spectrum, a technology that plays a big role in Bluetooth and WiFi.
Lamarr was a successful actress in Europe, but after marrying an older and abusive husband in her native Austro-Hungary, she had to flee to Paris in disguise in order to follow her dreams. There, she met studio executive Louis B. Meyer who launched her acting career in the USA. Thanks to him, she became extremely popular in the 1940s but she was invariably typecast as the archetypal glamorous seductress of exotic origin. She rarely had more than a few lines, which meant that her intellect and acting talents were never really put to good use. So she did what any intelligent woman might do and turned to inventing to relieve her boredom and disappointment with the superficiality of the silver screen.
At the beginning of World War II, Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes, which used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. Although the US Navy did not adopt the technology until the 1960s, the basic principles of her work are incorporated into Bluetooth technology and are similar to methods used in legacy versions of CDMA (code division multiple access) and Wi-Fi communications.
Frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) is a method of transmitting radio signals by rapidly switching carrier between various frequency channels by using a pseudorandom sequence known to both transmitter and receiver.
The available frequency band is divided into sub-frequencies. Signals rapidly change ("hop") among these in a pre-determined order. Interference at a specific frequency will only affect the signal during that short interval.
During the Cuban missile crisis of in 1962, an enhanced version of Lamarr’s original concept appeared on Navy ships and it has underpinned similar technology ever since.
But for Lamarr and her inventor friend, the road to recognition was to be a long one. It took more than thirty years until in 1997 they received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award. These accolades are given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences or business fields have significantly contributed to society – and Lamarr certainly qualifies for this!
Unfortunately, this remarkable woman was inducted into the National Inventors Hall posthumously in 2014, almost fours years after her death. Hedy Lamarr may have been a wartime silver screen diva, but there can be no shadow of doubt that she was a lot more than just a pretty face!
Read more about our STEM women trailblazers with Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell - the girl who reached for the stars.