Born on this day: Hedy Lamarr, the inventor who made the wireless network possible

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr, whose acting career spanned Hollywood’s golden age of the forties and fifties, was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women to grace the silver screen.

However she was much, much more than just a pretty face. As an inventor, Hedy Lamarr was responsible for developing the technology that underpins today’s wireless networks.

Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna on November 9 1914, young Hedy was encouraged to be curious about how things worked by her father Emil, who shared his passion for technology with his only child.

Lamarr began her cinematic career in Europe while still in her teens. Aged 19, she married Friedrich Mandl, a munitions manufacturer several years her senior who, according to Lamarr’s autobiography, was possessive and controlling, and kept her confined to their home. She was also required to accompany him to meetings where her husband and his clients discussed the finer points of military technology.

Lamarr eventually divorced Mandl and moved first to Paris, then to London, and on to Hollywood, where her acting career blossomed under a new screen name. However she retained an interest in applied science, and during her career she devoted much of her spare time to her hobby of inventing.

Her greatest achievement came in the early days of World War II, when Lamarr, along with the experimental composer George Antheil, devised a method to prevent the interception of radio-controlled torpedos. Lamarr’s former husband had worked with the Germans and other fascist governments and, thanks to the many meetings she had attended with him, Lamarr had some familiarity with a range of German military technologies, including torpedo control systems.

frequency hopping spread spectrum technology

Part of Patent US2292387 for Lamarr and Antheil’s frequency hopping spread spectrum technology.

Based on Antheil’s work with automated piano music, the pair devised a frequency hopping spread spectrum technology which allowed a torpedo to be controlled by moving through a sequence of 88 different frequencies, based on the 88 keys on a piano. This allowed a ship to control its torpedos but would prevent the Germans from intercepting or jamming the signal. The entire system could be contained on a pair of piano rolls, designed to follow the same sequence of frequencies.

Lamarr and Antheil filed their patent, titled Secret Communication System, in June 1941. The patent was granted the following year but was turned down by the US Navy, who thought the technology too cumbersome.

The Navy ultimately adopted the technology in the 1960s, but by then the patent had expired and Lamarr and Antheil received no royalties for their invention. Variations of the spread spectrum technology later formed the basis for the development of GPS. Within a few decades spread spectrum was being used to develop wireless and mobile phone networks, which used frequency hopping to allow phones to communicate with masts without interfering with each other. Variations of spread spectrum were also used to develop WiFi and Bluetooth.

George Antheil died in 1959, and nearly six decades would pass between the pair’s patent filing and the eventual recognition of Hedy Lamarr as an inventor of wireless communication. Lamarr, then 83 years old, was awarded the Communications Pioneer Freedom Foundation Award in 1998. She died two years later.

Lamarr and Antheil were inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame earlier this year.

  • krokodilm

    I think there is a mistake in the article where it states that her invention is “basis for the development of GPS”. AFAIK GPS does not use frequency hopping.

    • UnaSinnott

      Hi there! You are correct that GPS does not use frequency hopping, it uses direct sequence spread spectrum, one of several forms of spread spectrum now in use. To the best of my knowledge the research which led to the development of these newer forms of spread spectrum stemmed from Lamarr and Antheil’s patent, and this technology is used in GPS and other wireless technologies.

      • riclf

        Yea, and lets be clear- Al Gore invented the internet ! 😉

        • Hefty LaMarr

          It was I! I who invented the internet!

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  • Johnson

    It is a stretch to say this woman invented the internet. Everyone knows Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet.

    • WalterLinz

      There’s no mention in the article that she invented the internet.
      It’s clearly stated that she somehow invented wireless LAN, what’s partly true because her patent is a part of the foundation for WiFi but even more for GSM.

      Some people seem to think wireless LAN is the internet, it definitely isn’t.

    • fhtagn!

      Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, not the Internet.

    • lucy088

      Wrong, it was algore.

    • Lisa W

      I thought Al Gore invented the internet.

      • Peter Harris

        No Al Gore invented the hair net

    • Bill McCormack

      Actually, the “Internet” was a combination of efforts between ARPA, the BITNET, DOD, and others. No one person did it. It took many years and thousands of people had parts in its development. I help in a small way and worked with a great team in the early 80s, but the actual effort started in the 60s.

      • UnaSinnott

        Bill, I’d love to hear more about your role in the eighties. I’m not that familiar with BITNET but I wrote about the ARPANET a few years back . And you’re absolutely right, it’s been a very long road and many, many people have worked to get us where we are today!

        • Bill McCormack

          BitNet was the connection between certain Universities. From what I know there was always research money (grants) going out to some Universities and most of that research was classified and was actually for DARPA projects. Each school was researching different parts and then they reported back and it was all put together like a puzzle. The data was mailed on 9 inch magnetic tapes, but in the 60s the though of nuclear attack came about so it was decided to see if the Universities could be tied together somehow (networked). To share data in the early days each location had to use the same type of computer since cross-platform comm was not possible. Early days use of coax was common. In the 80s there were many different types of computers on the market (IBM, Amdahl, DEC Vax, Sperry (later bought out and changed to Unisys), etc. Finding a common transmission protocol was the key. I worked in Systems Engineering at Headquarters of the Marine Corps from 83 to 86 when I retired. When I got there we were tasked with building a network for the USMC bases, embassies and consulates. We ended up using Telex terminals and Amdahl processors and came up with the MCDN – Marine Corps Data Network which then started looking at the Amy , etc and we found that using a front end processor that ran SDLC/SNA would enable it is other machines supported that transmission protocol. (SDLC means Source Data Link/Systms Network Architecture). It worked and the DOD network became the DDN (Defense Data Network). This was then incorporated with the DARPANet and BitNet and once it all functioned I retired. I was told that about 6 months later the project as riefd at the Congressional level and they thought it would be a boost for the private sector so it was released for public use and renamed the Internet. The rest is real story since it has grown so much. I met Admiral Hoppe a several conferences and she cam to out office to be briefed and wow, was she fun to talk to. Google “Grace Hopper” if you don’t know who she was.

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  • Siacri Six

    Actually my cousin (an avid bather) invented the internet while disecting a squeaking rubber porpous in the bathtub. His knowledge of ambient temperature in relation to rubber porpous squeaker frequencies, spiderman action figure clothing, along with our grandfathers patent on “integrated circuits” (patent expired in 1937, also a bathtub revelation) combined with my grandmothers understanding of the complexities of lye soap manufacture brought him to the bathtub laboratory where he used his 2nd grade education to design the world wide web and several other important tech inventions yet to be unveiled due to conflicts regarding age at time of patent). We must seek to give credit where credit is due!

  • charles000

    Heddy Lamarr was remarkably intelligent, her invention was the concept of multiple freq RF transmission (freq “hopping”) for secure radio communication . . . which is a core concept for making cellular phone systems and wireless internet possible.

    • Kevin


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  • D Shapiro

    It’s nice in theory, but in reality, this is a stretch. Yes, what she did was important, and should be celebrated, but there is nothing to say that if she hadn’t done what she did, we wouldn’t have the wireless internet anyway. If you are going to write an article this way, maybe you should include everyone who’s work eventually led to the internet, like Franklin and Edison’s work with electricity, and those who invented radio, and later computers, and every other technological advance that was necessary to bring about the internet, let alone wireless internet. Better yet, just title the article celebrating her actual accomplishments, which are more than worthy, without sensationalizing them in this expansive way…