The Woman Responsible for the Digital Communications Age

Hedy Lamarr
December 7, 2018
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Businesses of all types rely heavily on the various technologies at the heart of the Digital Communications Age. These include everything from WiFi to Bluetooth to GPS and a myriad of other technologies. What the vast majority of people do not realize is that the technological concepts underpinning the Digital Communication Age were the brainchild of a Hollywood actress named Hedy Lamarr, once known as “the most beautiful girl in the world.”

The Rise of Adolf Hitler

Although Hedy Lamarr would rise to the pinnacle of the best-known actors during the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, she was born in Austria. Indeed, she began her career as an actor in Europe, starring in a ground-breaking and controversial film called Ecstasy.

At the time Adolf Hitler was rising to power in Germany, Lamarr was married to the largest munitions manufacturer in Austria. Her husband’s company built armaments for the Nazis as well as for Benito Mussolini in Italy.

On the eve of Hitler’s annexation of Austria into the German Reich, Lamarr fled her husband, her marriage, and her homeland. She made for the United States via a steamship, meeting the head of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, Louis B. Mayer, along the way.

Mayer was aware of Lamarr’s previous work in film, particularly Ecstasy. He quickly added her to the ever-growing roster of actors at MGM. Directly after arriving in the United States, Lamarr made her first U.S. motion picture, a film called Algiers. Reports from theatres at the time Algiers hit the silver screen were that some audience members gasped when Lamarr entered a scene because of her so-called exotic beauty. Not long after her first appearance in U.S. motion pictures, Lamarr was bestowed the moniker of “the most beautiful girl in the world.”

U.S. Torpedoes and German U-boats

Perhaps because of her Jewish heritage, perhaps because of Hitler’s annexation of Austria, Hedy Lamarr developed a visceral hatred of the Reich Chancellor. She became incredulous about how often Allied torpedoes missed their mark when taking on German U-boats. The Nazis proved themselves highly successful at jamming the guidance of Allied torpedoes, sending the weapons off course.

Unlike nearly anyone else in the United States, and unknown to others as Hitler expanded the Nazi Reich, Hedy Lamarr had the intelligence and tenacity necessary to contemplate and realize a solution to the Allied torpedo guidance problem. When not on the set in one film or another, Lamarr spent some of her time tinkering with inventions.

Hedy Lamarr the Inventor

The Woman Responsible for the Digital Communications Age 1At the height of her career as a movie actress, Hedy Lamarr could be found making three films at the same time in some cases. Her filming schedule was excruciating. The fact that Lamarr was engaging in a challenging filming schedule did not stop her from tinkering with inventions when not on the set.

A school dropout as a child, Lamarr had an innate talent in the realm of inventing. For example, as an inventor, Lamarr developed an improved stop light. She also is credited with enhancing the functioning of the tissue box.

As mentioned previously, Lamarr had a burning hatred of Adolf Hitler. She was horrified by the ineffectiveness of Allied torpedo guidance. Within a very short period of time Lamarr conceptualized what ultimately would become known as frequency-hopping spread-spectrum technology.

Synchronized Player Pianos

In the end, it was synchronized player pianos that inspired Lamarr in her development as the fundamental technology upon which the Digital Communication Age was founded. Player pianos individually are loaded with rolls that appear to be gibberish to a person looking at them. If two player pianos are outfitted with the same roll, they will play the same tune at the same time. Outsiders cannot anticipate what is coming because it is based on indecipherable and yet matching rolls.

The Woman Responsible for the Digital Communications Age 2Patent Number 2,292,387: The Secret Communications System

Ultimately, Hedy Lamarr was awarded Patent Number 2,292,387. Her technology was christened Secret Communication Device. Lamarr donated her technology to the U.S. military for be used in defending against Adolf Hitler and the Axis forces.

As is evident at any given moment in the world today, the technology created by Hedy Lamarr has had a profound impact on the world. She never received so much as a dime for her efforts. She was first and foremost a patriot and had no desire to profit from her efforts.

War Bonds

Despite gleaning a patent for her invention, the male powers-that-be in the U.S. military establishment patronized Lamarr and initially shelved her technology. These men took the unfortunate position that a woman lacked the capability to develop this type of paradigm-changing technology. Ultimately, these men were proven wrong, very wrong.

After donating her patent to the United States government, Lamarr was told to do what other Hollywood actresses were involved with at the time. She was instructed to go sell war bonds. Not to be deterred by males in the military, Lamarr did go sell war bonds. In the end, she outpaced everyone else in the entertainment industry in the sale of war bonds.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

The full capabilities of Hedy Lamarr’s technological concepts were realized during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What was called the Secret Communications System was installed on U.S. Navy ships to take on the Soviet Union during the conflict over the placement of that country’s nuclear weapons in Cuba.

Growing Application of Frequency-Hopping Spread-Spectrum Technology

Over time, frequency-hopping spread-spectrum technology as envisioned by Hedy Lamarr became the foundation of a myriad of vital technologies at the heart of the Digital Communications Age. These include:

  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth
  • GPA
  • TV tuners
  • Garage door openers
  • Retain store scanner

Hedy Lamarr in Later Years

The Woman Responsible for the Digital Communications Age 3Although Lamarr never had an interest in financially benefiting from her work as an inventor, later in her life she grew to have a desire to be recognized for her brilliant efforts. She would finally win a significant award for her work as an inventor, an accolade sometimes referred to as the Academy Awards for inventors.

When Lamarr was telephoned to be advised of the honor, her response was “it’s about time” and hung up the phone. She did not attend the ceremony.

Epilogue

Perhaps nothing more concisely sums up the contributions of Hedy Lamarr than the final moments in the theatrical production of Stand Still & Look Stupid, the play that chronicles the incredible life of Hedy Lamarr.

“Fourteen years after her death, Hedy Lamarr was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame. Spread spectrum technology, conceived by Hedy Lamarr, is indispensable for wireless communication. Her invention is described as the backbone of the Digital Communications Age … from mobile phones to WiFi to GPS to Bluetooth to the barcode scanner at the market and countless other technologies. Global communication exists because of a woman once best known as the most beautiful girl in the world. By her own description, Hedy Lamarr stood still and looked stupid, and then … she changed the world forever.”

As we move forward into the 21st century, more and more people are learning the full story about Hedy Lamarr. Ultimately, a fair assessment would be that Lamarr ultimately will be regarded as one of the most important inventors of both the 20th and 21st century. She not only will be inspiration for women going forward but for all people no matter their gender.

Meet the Author: Jessica Kane

The Woman Responsible for the Digital Communications Age 4Jessica Kane is a professional blogger who focuses on personal finance and other money matters. She currently writes for Checkworks.com, where you can get personal checks and business checks.

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