Born: 1914, Died 2000
Hedy Lamarr was born in Vienna in 1914 and after fleeing Austria (and her first husband) in 1937 she moved to California and began a film career as a Hollywood actress. However, she became bored with the Hollywood lifestyle and turned to inventing new things as a way to occupy her time off-screen.
Hedy created improvements to traffic signals, a bouillon cube which turned still water into carbonated water, and an aid to help those with limited mobility to bathe but her most important invention came during World War II. Aware that the guidance systems on American torpedoes could easily be jammed by the enemy, she devised a system with friend George Antheil that would prevent this. She relied on the information she had gathered while married to her first husband (a munitions manufacturer in Nazi Germany) and eventually developed a system that created a frequency-hopping signal that could not be jammed. This creative idea for an encryption system was based on the mechanism behind the ‘player piano’ - an automatic piano where the tune is controlled by a roll of paper with punched holes. Their device was patented in 1942 under Hedy's married name of Markey.
It wouldn’t be until much later that the importance of their invention would be recognised. The technology they developed was instrumental in the development of wireless communications such as those found in mobile phones, fax machines, and Bluetooth. Hedy was always more known for her film career than for her inventions, but without her work we wouldn’t have the ability to connect wirelessly with the digital world as we can today.
In 1997, Hedy and George Anthiel were honoured with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award.
Hedy Lamarr was one of the women profiled in our Women in Computing Festival 2017 of entitled Where Did All the Women Go?. Click here for the Women in Computing timeline created for that event.