Heralded as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” screen legend Hedy Lamarr — who died 16 years ago last week — was much more than a pretty face; she also was a brilliant inventor. One of her inventions, in fact, helped to lay the groundwork for the technology that powers the wireless devices we use today.
Few people today, however, know that Lamarr made that possible, nor that she is member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Instead, she is known for her Hollywood success and quintessential movie star good looks. Starring in films like Algiers and Samson and Delilah, Lamarr shared celluloid with leading men such as Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable and often was pigeon-holed into femme fatale or seductress roles that didn’t do justice to her talent.
Journalist Richard Rhodes sought to reveal the more complex Hedy Lamarr in his 2011 book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. According to Rhodes, after less successful and grandiose inventions — including a tablet that turned water into a soft drink — Lamarr was inspired to assist the Allies in World War II.
When the Germans began targeting passenger ocean liners, Lamarr chose to focus her efforts on improving Allied torpedoes, which were powerful but difficult to aim. She realized that radio-controlled torpedoes could find their targets more easily, but that jamming their frequencies with radio interference would render them useless. Along with her co-inventor, composer George Antheil, Lamarr developed “spread-spectrum radio,” a system that allows radio signals to be hopped frequently and randomly, thus avoiding jamming. Though their invention of a “secret communication system” was granted a patent in 1942, it did not see service during the war.
Today, many modern wifi devices use technology that can trace its roots to Lamarr’s spread-spectrum invention. Still, Lamarr’s contributions to innovation had gone unrecognized for decades. This is an unfortunate reality for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, the industries that lend themselves to the kinds of discoveries and inventions that our nation’s patent laws are intended to protect.
The number of women in STEM fields gradually has increased over the years, with several notable women leading the way. The 1960s saw chemist Stephanie Kwolek create Kevlar® for DuPont, while Jane Goodall began her groundbreaking study of chimpanzees and Dorothy Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Sally Ride inspired many when she became the youngest — and first female — American in space, then later authored books that helped to inspire countless other young women to enter STEM fields.
More recently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has inspired women in the workplace and STEM fields via her book Lean In and the “Ban Bossy” advocacy campaign. In 2014, Megan Smith became the first female Chief Technical Officer of the United States, and Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics, since the award’s inception in 1936. And, relevant to those of us who work in intellectual property, Michelle K. Lee is the Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the first female director in its 225-year history.
While the numbers are growing, women still are under-represented in engineering and computer science; according to a 2013 report, these fields make up 80 percent of STEM jobs, and there are actually fewer women in computer occupations now than there were in 1990. This would be a disappointment to Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first algorithms during the Victorian Era and is widely regarded as the first computer programmer.
Pioneering women such as Lamarr have helped to shatter glass ceilings for all women. Acting eventually bored Lamarr, and she spent the remainder of her life in more intellectual pursuits. She held little regard for her “most beautiful” moniker, saying “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
While much work remains to be done to reach full gender equality, women such as Hedy Lamarr should be remembered not only for their scientific discoveries, but also for their trailblazing courage in challenging the traditional roles of women in society.