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The Mother of Wi-Fi

September 25, 2013

hedy-lamarr

In the 1930s she was the star of the most controversial European film, Extase. Attending lavish parties with arm dealers, Hitler and Mussolini, she fled Europe and shared her screen with Clarke Gable, Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland. Hollywood called her The Most Beautiful Woman in the Movies. Enough achievements to last a lifetime, but not for Hedy Lamarr.

She was born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler into a Jewish family in Vienna. Her acting career took off with nude scenes and the first female orgasm on screen, earning her the nickname The Ecstasy Lady. Soon she was married to one of the richest Austrians, who happened to be a munitions manufacturer. Hedy spend countless hours with him, entertaining business partners and at the same time gaining knowledge about arms technology that she will use later in life.

Fleeing from her first husband, she embarked on the Normandy Transatlantic liner, where she met the MGM founder. Hedy stepped on the American soil with the movie contract in her hands, but that was not enough for the glamorous seductress and the star of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She had a secret passion. Hedy set aside one room in her home, with a drafting table and piles of engineering books, where she tinkered with ideas. Most, such as, a better Kleenex box or a different kind of traffic signal, were useless. But then the war broke out and Hedy wanted to help.

In Hollywood she befriended George Antheil, an avantgarde composer. While listening to his music performed on a dozen synchronised pianos, Hedy got an idea for a perfect way to hide allies’ torpedoes. She thought, if one could make transmitter and the receiver simultaneously jump frequencies, the Nazis trying to jam the signal would not find it. Hedy and George got a patent and offered their Secret Communication System to the Navy. Much to their surprise, the top brass mockingly dismissed the invention saying “do you want us to put a piano player into a torpedo”. They advised Hedy to better raise money for more torpedoes and stop pursuing her silly inventions. She did just so and left her invention to the Navy.

Hedy’s idea for frequency switching, that seemed so obsolete, is today considered as the backbone of digital communication technology. It is used in mobiles, GPS and other wireless devices that are part of our everyday life. Until recently, Hedy Lamarr was remembered only as a Hollywood star, slowly she is being recognised also as a genius inventor.

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