Hedy LaMarr: The Brain Behind Secure WiFi, GPS And Bluetooth
The glamorous cinema diva is perhaps best known for her parts in the 1940s Oscar-nominated movies “Algiers” and “Sampson and Delilah.” However, ‘Bombshell: The Hedy LaMarr Story,’ a biographical film about her, claims that her greatest contribution to society was her technical intellect. The movie details LaMarr’s 1941 application for a patent on frequency-hopping technology, which served as the forerunner to the safe wi-fi, GPS, and Bluetooth systems that are currently used by billions of people worldwide.
Hedwig Kiesler, who would later become LaMarr, was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, in 1914. She had a fascination for theatre and film when she was a child, and she soon started attending acting classes in Vienna. She didn’t have to wait long to get her first significant role in a play when Max Reinhardt, an Austrian theatrical producer, cast her in The Weaker Sex.
Soon after, film offers started to come in, and in early 1933, 18-year-old LaMarr got the main role in a Czech film that would make her famous all over the world. The movie was Ecstasy, a highly contentious love drama. LaMarr not only appeared nude but also took part in the first non-pornographic depiction of sex in a film as well as the first ever female orgasm on screen.
At the age of 19, she married her first husband in 1934. LaMarr, who was unhappy in her marriage to an affluent, domineering munitions manufacturer, fled their home by bicycle in the middle of the night.
It is said that LaMarr drugged her maid with sleeping pills before stealing her outfit, lining the insides with jewellery, and fleeing on the maid’s bicycle.
In 1937, LaMarr fled to Paris before relocating to London. She was able to arrange a meeting with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who was in London on business. Meyer was initially skeptical that LaMarr could succeed in the United States while the aftereffects of Ecstasy were still being felt. Meyer, eventually offered LaMarr a six-month contract at $125 per week. LaMarr declined the offer because she believed she was worth far more.
She soon regretted her decision, however, and found herself on the same liner as Meyer as he sailed back to America. By the end of the journey, LaMarr had persuaded Meyer to extend her a seven-year contract at $500 per week. The only stipulation was that she alter her name in order to shed her Ecstasy-related reputation. In honour of the well-known silent cinema actress Barbara La Marr, Hedy Kiesler changed her name to Hedy LaMarr.
Soon after LaMarr arrived in Hollywood, she was hailed as the “most beautiful lady in the world.” Her remarkable looks are credited with being the inspiration for Snow White, a character developed by Walt Disney the following year.
The Austrian beauty quickly adapted to life in Beverly Hills and made friends with notable people like John F. Kennedy and Howard Hughes, who gave her equipment to do experiments in her trailer when she wasn’t acting. In this scientific setting, LaMarr discovered her true calling.
The fame and money LaMarr deserved for her ideas, however, did not come easily to her. She and her co-inventor George Antheil sought to preserve their World War II invention, which allowed radio signals to “hop” from one frequency to another, preventing the Nazis from picking up on Allied torpedoes.
LaMarr and Antheil outlined how radio-controlled torpedoes employed by the navy during World War II could be interfered with by broadcasting a specific interference at the signal’s frequency control, which would ultimately cause the torpedo to veer off course.
The “Secret Communications System,” a patented invention created by LaMarr and Anthiel, altered radio frequencies intermittently during transmission or receiving. Their creation created a kind of impenetrable code that stopped the enemy from intercepting transmissions of sensitive information and messages.
Even though the U.S. military officially acknowledged LaMarr’s frequency hopping patent and technological contribution, neither she nor her estate ever received a dime from the multibillion-dollar market her innovation helped to create.
Frequency hopping is frequently used in wireless communication systems to increase the number of concurrent users while reducing signal interference. The same frequency can be used by multiple transmissions, and if one of them fails or is blocked, it switches to another.
Today’s spread-spectrum communication technology is built on the work done by LaMarr and Anthiel. It is the principle behind Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS connectivity.
Her efforts was finally acknowledged in 1997 when she earned the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award in recognition of her achievements.
At the age of 85, LaMarr passed away in January 2000, but even as she was nearing death, she continued to create things, such as a fluorescent dog collar, upgrades for the Concorde jet, and a new type of stoplight. Her son Anthony Loder stated after her passing that she would have been happy with the legacy of her “frequency hopping” idea: “She would love to be recognised as someone who contributed to the well-being of humankind.”