Empowering Women in AV: The Groundbreaking Legacy of Hedy Lamarr

International Women's Day: Recognized today as an iconic actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood, she invented one of the most consequential AV technologies in history.
Empowering Women in AV: The Groundbreaking Legacy of Hedy Lamarr

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Women have historically been underestimated in technology, but there are shining examples of those who broke through barriers and revolutionized the industry. One such visionary was Hedy Lamarr, a remarkable individual whose brilliance and innovation paved the way for advancements in AV and technology.

Hedy Lamarr's story is not just one of Hollywood glamour but also of an analytical mind that developed spread-spectrum technology, a system initially used for military applications that provides secure communications by spreading a signal over a large frequency band. This crucial advancement continues to impact our modern world. But what if she had the support of local women's groups? As brilliant as her life story is, it could have been drastically different with some encouragement from her peers. The outcome of World War II, communication technologies, and the AV industry as we know it could have been entirely different had she been encouraged to dive deeper into technology development.

Lamarr's life was fascinating. There are stories of her dating US President John F. Kennedy, the characters of Snow White and Cat Woman were based on her image, and she shrewdly and unprecedently negotiated a higher salary with film studio MGM. 

Today, most people only recognize Lamarr as an iconic actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood, known for roles in Oscar-nominated films such as Algiers and Sampson and Delilah. That's probably why it sounds unconventional that Lamarr, once named "The Most Beautiful Girl in The World," would also be a female engineer role model. You would never assume the genius who discovered "frequency hopping" technology would be this same person. Hedy always labeled herself a "true enemy of convention."

Born in Austria to Jewish parents, Lamarr was devastated by the outbreak of World War II. Witnessing the devastating impact of German U-boats killing thousands of refugees attempting to flee Nazi-occupied Europe, Lamarr felt a deep sense of duty to help. She was inspired to contribute to the war efforts by inventing a revolutionary communication system to aid the British.

"I got the idea for my invention as a way to even the balance for the British." She was quoted, calling it "obvious" to her. "They shot torpedoes in all directions and never hit the target, so I invented something that does."

The fatal flaw of radio-controlled torpedoes was that enemies could easily detect the signal, making them ineffective. However, Lamarr discovered that by varying the frequency in which radio signals are sent, enemies would be unable to determine which frequency band to block. This inventive concept of frequency-hopping or spread spectrum laid the groundwork for future developments in communication technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular telephones.

Eager to bring her invention to fruition, Lamarr joined forces with her neighbor, pianist George Antheil. Utilizing the concept of the 88-key player piano, the invention was based on 88 frequencies that could be controlled spontaneously. They received their patent in August 1942, marking a significant milestone in their collaborative efforts. However, when Lamarr and Antheil presented their invention to the US Navy, they were met with a dismissive response, leaving Hedy feeling frustrated and unappreciated.

"My face has been my misfortune, a mask I cannot remove, I must live with it. I curse it," she said at the time.

Despite the rejection of her groundbreaking achievement, Lamarr remained determined to contribute to the war efforts. She sold 25 million dollars in war bonds, exhibiting her unwavering commitment to supporting the Allied forces against Nazi Germany. Regrettably, her invention remained dormant until the 1960s Cuban Missile Crisis, long after the patent had expired. 

Hedy's resilience and innovative spirit were finally recognized 50 years later when she was presented with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Award in 1998, a testament to her remarkable character. She unapologetically responded, "It's about time."

The US military declassified spread-spectrum technology in the mid-1980s, leading to the development of consumer electronics that significantly benefitted from Lamarr's invention. The market value of her discovery today is estimated at $30 billion, yet she never received any financial compensation for her groundbreaking contribution. However, wireless microphone companies have improved transmission issues by implementing frequency-hopping techniques, demonstrating the long-lasting impact of Lamarr's ingenuity.

You would think how Hedy was treated as a woman inventor would leave her defeated and bitter, yet she continued to create inventions until her death in 2000 at the age of 85. At the end of the documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Hedy reads a favorite poem by Kent M. Keith for a 1990 Forbes interview, perfectly epitomizing her incredible efforts in this world:

"The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway…

Give the world the best you have, and you'll get kicked in the teeth.

Give the world the best you have anyway."

A version of this story appears on AVIXA.org by Jennifer Goodyer.

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Go to the profile of Iulia Popescu - AVIXA
3 months ago

Hedy's contributions have had such an impact. Her resilience, passion, and dedication to her craft are admirable. I'm a sucker for a good quote, and that one just hits the nail on the head. And while it is admirable, it also points out how different things could have been had she been encouraged more. Creating an increasingly inclusive, encouraging path esp for women in these industries can make a world of a difference. Great story and topic to bring attention to!

Go to the profile of Valeria Rapa
3 months ago

Hedy Lamarr is one of my favorite #womeninSTEM of all times!

Go to the profile of Tom Norman
about 2 months ago

It would be proper recognition of Hedy Lamarr's genius if spread spectrum technology was officially re-labeled as Lamarr Modulation. 

Go to the profile of Lisa Matthews, CTS - AVIXA
about 2 months ago

Indeed it would, @Tom Norman