The Sideshow

Famed actress Hedy Lamarr helped invent wireless technology

Eric Pfeiffer
The Sideshow

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Richard Rhodes' new biography details how actress Hedy Lamarr helped invest wireless technology

A new biography from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes explains how former actress Hedy Lamarr, once considered "the most beautiful woman in the world," was actually a prolific inventor, providing the U.S. Navy with the blueprints for the wireless technology behind cell phone networks and GPS.

Rhodes told NPR that Lamarr was bored by the Hollywood social scene and  had set up a drafting table in her house and launched a sideline as an inventor. When German submarines began attacking civilian passenger cruise liners, Lamarr and her co-inventor George Antheil, came up with the idea of "spread-spectrum radio" to remotely control torpedoes:

"She understood that the problem with radio signals was that they could be jammed. But if you could make the signal hop around more or less randomly from radio frequency to radio frequency, then the person at the other end trying to jam the signal won't know where it is," he says. "If they try to jam one particular frequency, it might hit that frequency on one of its hops, but it would only be there for a fraction of a second."

Lamarr and Antheil received a patent for their idea in 1942 but the Navy was lukewarm to the idea, leaving it untouched for years. Rhodes says after the war, the Navy returned to the idea and "the whole system spread like wildfire." And to this day, features of Lamarr's original invention are still found in most wireless devices.

In the early 1990s, Lamarr finally received acknowledgement for her contribution from the communications industry, reportedly saying, "Well, it's about time." When she wasn't planning the future of how nearly everyone on the planet now communications over the phone, Lamarr was coming up with other less-successful inventions, including a tablet that dissolved in water to create a soda similar to Coca-Cola.

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