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How Jewish Actress Hedy Lamarr Paved the Way for Wi-Fi

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This post is the first in a four-part series with the Jewish Women’s Archive, commemorating women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) for Jewish American Heritage Month. Every Monday in May you can look forward to a new post about a Jewish woman who helped to lay the groundwork for women in science today.  

When one thinks of the Jewish screen siren Hedy Lamarr, images of wireless technology do not exactly come to mind.

More than likely one thinks about her starring roles in “Tortilla Flat” (1942) and “Samson and Delilah” (1949). And yet, in 1942, “the most beautiful woman in Hollywood” received a patent with composer George Antheil for a “frequency hopping, spread-spectrum communication system” designed to make radio-guided torpedoes harder to detect or jam.

Lamarr and Antheil made an interesting pair of collaborators. She was an Austrian-born beauty who practiced electrical engineering when off the movie lot; he was an avant-garde composer, notably of “Ballet Mécanique,” a score that included synchronized player pianos. The two used the mechanisms of those player pianos to devise a method whereby a controlling radio and its receiver would jump from one frequency to another in synch, so that the radio waves could not be blocked.

The two submitted their patent to the US Navy, which officially opined that Lamarr could do more for the war effort by selling kisses to support war bonds. On one occasion, she raised $7 million. She and Antheil donated their patent to the US Navy and never received any money from their invention, which would eventually become the basis for wireless phones, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and Wi-Fi, among other cutting-edge technologies.

Her son Anthony Loder recalls, “She was such a creative person, I mean, nonstop solution-finding. If you talked about a problem, she had a solution.”

Read more here about Hedy Lamarr here.

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