Did you know that a 1940s Hollywood actress invented bluetooth and Wi-Fi Technology??

Long before Queen Beyonce was “Fierce”, the title could just as easily have belonged to one Hedwig Maria Kiesler.

She was born in Vienna- later to become known in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood as the actress Hedy Lamarr: often referred to at that time as “the most beautiful woman in the world”.

Unlike Beyonce, she was constrained by the times in which she lived, and once described her beauty as a “curse” because it was considered “confusing” and undesirable for a beautiful and famous woman to also be seen as intelligent.

And what an amazing and intelligent person she was – an inventor of world-changing technology, a legacy for which she remains largely unrecognised, simply because she was born in an era where there was a preference for emphasising her looks instead of her intellect.

From an early age, she had a strong interest in science and technology, and innovation. Escaping an abusive marriage to a wealthy Austrian arms magnate, whose dealings with Mussolini and Hitler she abhorred (“It had been his game to keep me prisoner; it had been my game to escape. He lost”), she emigrated to America.

She specifically booked a passage on the luxury ocean liner “Normandie”, in order to meet fellow passenger Louis B. Mayer, who subsequently hired her for his MGM studios, after “seeing her effect on the other passengers” (In her biography she describes Mr Mayer in such a way as to indicate some similarities with one Mr H Weinstein. In Ms Lamarr’s case, she once said she was “compelled to pour a jug of water over his head” to put a stop to his Mr Mayers’ persistent advances).

She started out in Hollywood as Zeigfield Follies “Girl” before being offered more substantial movie roles, including the controversial, (and, for its time) feminist and avant-garde movie, Ecstasy, where she played an “emancipated, liberated woman” and undertook the first ever nude scenes in movie history. It went on to win an award at the 1934 Venice Film Festival. (She later said that she never forgot the look on her parents’ faces as her “bare bottom bounced across the screen”).

Frustratingly for her, she was often typecast in roles, not just by her looks, but also by her European accent. Although her fame grew over time, she never took her profession too seriously, and refused to be defined by it; once declaring: “Anyone can be glamorous, you just have to stand still and look stupid”.

She subsequently moved into producing, an usual move for a female actress of that time- when Hollywood producers were quoted as saying how “terrible they found the trend to more equality”.

She also worked with her (third) husband to build and develop a very successful ski resort, in Aspen, Colorado- seeing its potential as the winter playground for the rich and famous that it is today.

At her core, Hedy was fiercely curious and intelligent, and had an interest in science and innovation from a very young age. As she grew her network in Hollywood, she became friends with Howard Hughes, who, admiring her intelligence and scientific knowledge, provided her with her own scientific laboratory and team, and she made many suggestions as to how he could streamline and improve the aerodynamics of his aeroplanes- and which he adopted, to his benefit.

But her greatest contribution was to the world of science and remains largely unknown and uncredited: she was the inventor of “frequency hopping spread spectrum technology”, which provided the foundation for the wi-fi, GPS, WLAN and blue tooth/mobile technology we use today, which we all use today- even I, as I write this article.

Hedy originally intended the technology to assist with the anti Nazi war effort, working with the author and composer George Anthell, developing a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. She was so confident in the invention that she attempted to terminate her contract with MGM and report to the US National Inventors Council. She offered her invention (including the patent) to the US Navy, but was ridiculed by the then Commander in Chief of the US Forces, instead being asked to use her movie fame to improve troop morale.

Her invention was subsequently applied as she had intended it to be, during the Cuban Misssile Crisis of 1962.

It was only later that it was adapted for non-military purposes, forming the basis for the technology we take for granted today: the market value of her contribution being valued in today’s money at 30 billion US dollars.

The world has taken a long time to recognise her scientific contribution. In 2011, The Guardian newspaper ran an article entitled “If it wasn’t for Hedy, we wouldn’t have Wi Fi”.

In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Nowadays, in Austria and Germany, her birthday, November 9, is celebrated as the “National Day of Invention” where she is seen as the poster girl, not for her movies, but for encouraging girls to become interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.

Hedy once said “Films have a certain place in a certain time period. Technology is forever”.

Her legacy is assured in both.

***In writing this article, I acknowledge the wonderful “Hedy Lamarr: Lady Bluetooth” exhibition and accompanying catalogue of the Judisches Museum Wien, Judenpltaz.

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