Hedwig Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria. She and her father often took long walks where they would talk about the inner workings of different technologies. She also learned an appreciation of the arts from her mother who was a concert pianist. Eventually, the artistic side of her personality won out and she became interested in acting. At the age of 17 she appeared in her first film.
She married for the first time at age 18 to the third-richest man in Austria. Her husband was involved in munitions industry, and she would often accompany him on business trips. This is when she renewed her interest in technology. However, her husband was very controlling so she left him and relocated to London. While in London, she met with Louis Mayer, head of MGM studios and signed a contract to work in his movies. She changed her name to Hedy Lamarr.
When she relocated to California, her neighbor was a composer by the name of George Antheil. During WW II, Hedy and George grew increasingly concerned about the prospects for the Allied forces. She learned that the Allies’ radio-controlled torpedoes could be jammed, sending them off course. She and Antheil came up with a plan for a frequency-hopping signal that could prevent the tracking and jamming of the torpedoes.
Lamarr and Antheil obtained a patent on a frequency-hopping technology that they hoped the Navy would use. While the Navy chose not to use it at the time, the frequency hopping technology later proved to be vital during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And eventually the technology developed by Lamarr and Antheil served as the basis for the development of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS technologies.
During and after the war, Hedy’s day job continued to be acting. She co-starred with the biggest names in the film industry. She was often called the most beautiful actress in Hollywood. Not many people knew that she was also an inventor with a gift for developing technology.
Nowadays, Hedy Lamarr is most celebrated for her career in film, not as an inventor. When she attempted to join the National Inventor’s Council during World War II, she was denied. Charles Kettering, then head of engineering at GM, said that she would be better used as a celebrity selling war bonds.
There’s a common assumption that women aren’t inventors. Hedy Lamarr’s career disproves that notion. But historically, women often have not been given credit for their inventions. We often know the names of male inventors, but struggle to recall women who made similar breakthrough inventions. How do our gender assumptions shape the roles people can play in society—and the recognition they can receive?
Just imagine being a child with an interest in technology and being told that people like you don’t do things like that. How many young girls do you imagine have heard that? Imagine your friends’ reaction should you tell them that the underlying technology for Wi-Fi was developed by a woman, and by a Hollywood star no less. Just imagine how investors might react to a marvelous new technology developed by a female celebrity. The inability to accept women as technology innovators is an area of social justice that is rarely discussed.
* * *
“Films have a certain place in a certain time. Technology is forever.” – Hedy Lamarr
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.