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As this blog is perennially devoted to Ada Lovelace, we like to use Ada Lovelace Day (which we blogged about a few days ago) as an opportunity to share the stories of other under-appreciated women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. You can read our post from last year about Ada’s tutor, Mary Somerville, here. This year, we have chosen to honor inventor, actress, and technology pioneer Hedy Lamarr. We hope you enjoy.
In addition to being an actress who had staring roles opposite the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and James Stewart, Hedy Lamarr also helped invent a the precursor to Bluetooth .
Born on November 9th, 1914 (though the accuracy of this date is debated ), Hedy Lamarr received no formal science education, but from age four she had private lessons in language, ballet, and piano, and she also received education in sports, music, and arts . On August 11th, 1942, Lamarr and her co-inventor George Antheil, a music composer, were awarded a patent to a “Secret communication system.” It was the middle of World War II, and Lamarr and Antheil were concerned that Allied torpedos were hard to control and thus had trouble reaching their destinations. Lamarr thought that, if the torpedoes were controlled by radio signals, their navigation could be manipulated with much more accuracy [3, 4]. But she knew that there was a problem: the enemy could easily jam a radio signal. Her solution? Frequency hopping.
If transmissions sent over one frequency were easy to jam, then she thought that transmissions that jumped from frequency to frequency would be hard to intercept, jam, and even detect in the first place . She and Antheil developed and patented the technology, then gifted it to the U.S. Navy . Society at the time, however, was not sufficiently advanced technologically to make such an invention practical. It wasn’t until around 1962, three years after the patent had expired, that frequency-hopping began to be used; Lamarr and Antheil never received any monetary compensation .
Today, the principles of her inventions are used by the military and by technologies such as Bluetooth, cell phones, and Global Positioning Systems . In 1997, Lamarr was given a Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for her co-invention of what is now called “spread-spectrum” broadcasting (an honor which she reportedly acknowledged with the words “Well, it’s about time” [4, 5]), and in 2014  she was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame. She died on January 19th, 2000 .
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