Hedy Lamarr was an iconic actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood. She made over 20 films, although she never received a nomination for an Academy Award. She was known around the globe as “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Lamarr was one of the most popular “pinup girls” during World War II. She also sold more war bonds than any other Hollywood star. When asked what a woman needed to do to be glamorous in Hollywood, Lamarr simply stated that all she needed to do was “stand still and look stupid.”
What nearly no one realizes is that Hedy Lamarr can accurately be categorized as the ultimate home-based entrepreneur. Based on her work from the confines of her residence, Lamarr is arguable the most important inventor of the 20th and 21st centuries. Most of those who know the Hedy Lamarr story would argue without pause that she is the most important inventor of the past 100 years.
The Inventive Mind of Hedy Lamarr
Lamarr kept something of a workshop in the back of her Los Angeles home. The space included drafting tables and other equipment more often seen in a scientist’s workshop.
It was in her home that Lamarr developed the technological concepts that became known as frequency hopping spread spectrum technology. The scientific jargon initially is likely to leave a person shrugging his or her shoulders as he or she mumbles “so what.” The fact is that frequency hopping spread spectrum technology changed the way the world communicates, among other things.
The Importance of Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum Technology
In order to get a clearer picture of the importance of the technology conceived by Hedy Lamarr, consider some of the “things” we use on a daily basis that depends on Lamarr’s spread spectrum technology. Examples of “things” that depend on Lamarr’s technology are:
- mobile phones of all other types
- TV tuners
- garage door openers
- cordless phones
- scanners at retail stores
Hedy Lamarr and the Cuban Missile Crisis
The technology of Hedy Lamarr additionally was utilized in torpedo and missile guidance systems. For example, her technology was on the Navy ships that blockaded the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
A strong argument can be made that President Kennedy could not have stood down the Soviets without knowing that he had access on U.S. ships to what was then oftentimes called “Secret Communications System.”
How Did Lamarr Come Up with Her Technology?
Hedy Lamarr developed frequency hopping spread spectrum technology by considering player pianos, specifically player pianos playing in unison. Her thoughts focused on the fact that the rolls in the player pianos contained indecipherable gibberish when examined visually. However, two player pianos could be synchronized to play the same song at the same time. In a very basic way, this is at the heart of frequency hopping spread spectrum technology.
Hedy Lamarr in Recent Popular Culture
Up until the past five years, nearly no one knew the full Hedy Lamarr story. In 2016, the first biographical play hit stages in the United States, telling the story of Hedy Lamarr. The play, entitled “Stand Still & Look Stupid,” has seen a number of actresses in the lead role, most recently Emily Ebertz. The play is written by playwright Mike Broemmel.
In 2017, actress Susan Sarandon produced a documentary about Hedy Lamarr called “Icon.” The doc is gradually being screened in more theatres across the United States and internationally.
The closing sequence of “Stand Still & Look Stupid” sums up the importance of this pioneering work-at-home entrepreneur:
Fourteen years after her death, Hedy Lamarr was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame. Spread spectrum technology, conceived by Hedy Lamarr, is indispensable for wireless communication. Her invention is described as the backbone of the digital communications age, from mobile phones to WiFi to GPS to Bluetooth to the barcode scanner at the market … and countless other technologies. Global communication exists because of a woman once best known as the most beautiful girl in the world.
By her own description, Hedy Lamarr stood still and looked stupid, and then she changed the world forever.
Hedy Lamarr died in 2000, alone in Florida. Her ashes are scattered in her homeland of Austria, in a forest outside the capital city of Vienna. She made no money from her technology, having donated it to the United States government.
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