Everyone knows Snow White, the fair-toned beauty with rosy red cheeks whose 7 dwarf friends aided her in her love story with her Prince. Did you know it’s speculated the character was inspired by Hedy Lamarr known as“the most beautiful woman in the world.” A lesser known fact about Lamarr she reportedly helped create the first prototype for WiFi in 1942. This contribution to the STEM community allows 4.9 billion people worldwide to be connected to each other daily. From the start of her life to after her passing, Lamarr’s work is extremely important in the way society functions today.
“The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think,” Lamarr said in an interview from April 1990 with Fleming Meeks at Forbes. “People have the idea I’m sort of a stupid thing. I never knew I looked good to begin with.” The interview tape was lost and finally uncovered in 2016, and featured on PBS’ American Masters.
Lamarr’s interest in STEM started early
Born on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria, Lamarr was known as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. As a child, she went to a Berlin acting school, dropping out to begin starring in films at the age of 16. Before the name change, Lamarr performed in German and Czechoslovakian films, and finally to the big screen in Hollywood. Alongside her talent for acting, she had a very intellectual mind, rooted in the influence of her father Emil Kiesler. The two of them would assemble music boxes, instructing Lamarr on how the mechanics worked inside.
“I don’t have to work on ideas. They come naturally” Lamarr said in an interview featured in another American Masters video.
World War II Dinner Parties Provided Useful Education
When she had left Austria, Lamarr was fleeing her husband, Friedrich Mandl. Who reportedly made Lamarr feel like a puppet under his control. At the time of their marriage, Mandl took her to dinner parties with Italian and German weapon engineers because Mandl was an arms merchant, someone who sold military weapons and equipment and associated himself with Nazi businessmen.
Hilter and Mussolini were among these men at the dinner parties, bringing extreme distress to Lamarr who was Jewish. Due to her gender, Lamarr did not raise a threat to these men for listening in on their conversations. Maybe one good thing did come from their marriage - Lamarr’s knowledge of topics concerning secret radio communications and war-related technologies.
From Tinkering with Music Boxes to Airplanes
After her arrival in the United States in the late 1930s, Lamarr met Howard Hughes - an extremely successful aircraft designer, industrialist and film producer. Called “Hollywood’s Secret Heartbreaker,” Hughes wasn’t the man she would desperately fall in love with and marry. But he played an important role as her partner who strongly encouraged her brilliance, making a miniature inventing table in her trailer so she could work in between her filming takes. Lamarr’s curiosity about machinery and assembly led her to visit Hughes’ workshops to study how planes were made. Lamarr aided Hughes’ mission to create fast airplanes, coming up with the structures of their wings herself.
“My friends’ mothers had aprons on and were cooking for their husbands,” Denise Loder-DeLuca, Lamarr’s daughter, said in an interview with Juliet Gilden in 2021. “They didn’t even work, and my mother was telling guys what to do. It was really ahead of her time.”
On December 9, 1941, the Declaration of War on Japan was announced. 3 days later, the United States of America Congress declared a state of war with Germany, beginning World War II. As a Jewish woman herself, she was emotionally distraught by the terrors caused by the German Nazis. In 1941, 77 children refugees died by the U-48, a German submarine that sank and damaged boats. Lamarr made use of the knowledge of torpedoes she gathered in Austria to aid the US Navy.
Rejection Never Stopped Lamarr
After being denied by the National Inventors Council for being a woman, Lamarr had to find another way to donate her extreme knowledge to the greater cause. A year prior to the declaration of war, Lamarr met George Antheil, an American composer, self-proclaimed as the Bad Boy of Music in his autobiography. This “bad boy” was similar to Lamarr, in the aspect that he was intrigued by invention but known for his music. The two worked together to give life to Lamarr’s vision of her “Secret Communication System,” now referred to as “frequency hopping.”
Lamarr focused on the prevention of American strategies, signals and messages being intercepted by enemies. She made a transmitter and receiver which would block enemies from being able to find the next frequency that calls would be made at. Her wonderful invention was finally patented in 1942.
Lamarr’s Work is Used Today
Her work developed into today’s Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth systems through Spread Spectrum Technology. This technology uses a large frequency band to spread signals to acquire secure communication. Spread Spectrum gives users privacy, interference prevention, use frequency and time simultaneously, and jamming protection. So, you can thank Hedy Lamarr the next time you use your phone to direct you to a coffee shop, call your long-distance friend, or ask Alexa to tell you about the weather (and for reading this article online).
Gilden asked her daughter Denise the questions, “Did she [Hedy Lamarr] talk about the inventions not being acknowledged throughout her life? Did she carry a lot of angst with that?” To this, she responded that her mother rarely spoke about it, rather focusing on the time she spent with family rather than focus on her work. Denise had barely known about the invention till people would send her newspaper articles giving credit to Lamarr. l
As of 2022, according to Zippia, only 38% of the world doesn’t use the internet. In America, 93% of the population uses the internet. With so many active users, it’s a true shame that Lamarr isn’t acknowledged and praised for her influence. Since passing on January 19, 2000 at age 85, she has been given the name “the mother of wifi” alongside induction to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
It’s up to our generation to make sure that women in STEM are seen, heard and praised for their work. Whether that means taking a deep dive into history or acknowledging the girl sitting next to us majoring in chemical engineering, it is time to give women the credit they deserve for their brains, not just their looks.
This article was written by Sophia Aiello. Sophia is a freshman at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, majoring in Journalism & Electronic Media with a concentration in News. She is involved on campus with The Volunteer Channel's The Morning Jem and Pi chapter of Chi Omega.