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The Mother of Wi-Fi: Hedy Lamarr’s Legacy in Technology

The Mother of Wi-Fi: Hedy Lamarr’s Legacy in Technology

Hedy Lamarr black and white portrait
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Who knew that the early role of women in technology was linked to a goddess of the silver screen? One of the most successful Hollywood stars of the 1940s and ’50s, Hedy Lamarr, was feted as ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World,’ but her enduring legacy would be for her role as an inventor.

Her exploration into ‘frequency hopping’ earned her the sobriquet ‘Mother of WiFi.’ The fact that her contribution to science is practically unknown to the broader public reveals the structural barriers that impact women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). As society finally recognizes the significance of Hedy’s work, other significant contributions from women are also being re-evaluated and credited.

Hedy Lamarr was a star in Hollywood’s golden age. She worked with legendary directors such as von Sternberg and Cecil B. DeMille. In true Hollywood fashion, she married seven times and had countless lovers, including actor Spencer Tracy and John F. Kennedy. Although Lamarr’s undeniable beauty was the defining characteristic of Hollywood marketing campaigns, she was more than a beautiful actress. She was a legitimate inventor, but recognition as an inventor and scientist was not on the agenda for stars in Hollywood’s studio system.

Today, Hedy Lamarr is credited with inventing ‘frequency hopping,’ a foundational concept in digital communications fundamental to cellular, satellite, secure Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth signal processing. (“Actress Hedy Lamarr, Inventor: A Public Image Reframed”) She was a pioneer in the development of a technology that changed the world. There was very little contemporary news coverage of her invention; forty years later (in the 1980s), the story of Lamarr as an inventor began to spread via internet newsgroups. They acknowledged Hedy Lamarr’s invention of ‘frequency hopping’ as a brilliant scientific innovation by a woman never given proper credit for her contribution to science. Finally, with the advent of the internet (which evolved from her patent), her public image shifted to that of an inventor as well as a beautiful actress.


History Reassessed in Film

Today, a niche genre in filmmaking offers a glimpse into technically-minded women’s lives. Productions like Bombshell, Hidden Figures, and Mercury 13, depict some of the contributions women have made to science. They also show how policymakers place more obstacles in front of women than men, making it harder for women to emerge as scientists.

Although the periods and details vary, one theme these films share is questioning the assertion that decisions about including women in STEM are made through merit-based assessments. The historical events in these films indicate that the patriarchal mindset made it impossible for women to participate and earn a name in STEM, due to gender bias. Historically, talented women were thwarted because they could not access training or organizations available to men.

Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell, released in 2018, examines Lamarr’s life and scientific discoveries and observes how such brilliance did not fit the image the Hollywood studio system and its galaxy of stars.

In a similar way, the 2016 movie Hidden Figures highlights the history of Katherine Johnson and other African American women working alongside white women at NASA as human ‘computers’ (the precursor to the computer machine that replaced women’s labor in a system of automation). It’s a reminder of how women’s work and intellects are made invisible to promote their physical attributes, highlighted in a hetero-patriarchal system.


A Hollywood Star and a Beautiful Brainiac

Hedwig (Hedy) Kiesler was born in Vienna in 1914 to wealthy Jewish parents who exposed Hedy to the arts, especially the theatre. Her father, Emil, was interested in technology and would explain how things worked to his bright daughter. Lamarr said of her father, “He made me understand that I must make my own decisions, mold my character, think my thoughts.” At the time, Vienna was one of the cultural centers of Europe, and prominent women in the arts enjoyed considerable freedom, such as earning a living, remaining unmarried, and having affairs.

Hedy Lamarr wanted to be an actress from a very young age and dropped out of high school aged 16 to pursue a career. She won a few minor movie parts that led to her most infamous role in the film Ekstase (Ecstasy), in which, at age 17, she appeared naked and also in a sex scene (albeit clothed). Her parents managed to turn a blind eye to her role in this scandalous movie just as they had forgiven her for dropping out of school.

In her early 20s, Hedy Lamarr arrived in Hollywood under contract to MGM. She had a laboratory setup at home and would have a chemistry set complete with rows of test tubes installed in her trailer while filming. While her private life was tumultuous and under the spotlight, research secretly drove her ambition.


From Film Star to a Scientist

Hedy Lamarr was naturally curious and drew inspiration from everywhere. Richard Rhodes, her biographer, noted that the Philco Radio Company’s ‘Magic Box’ advertisement from 1939 was one such inspiration. The Magic Box was an early remote control that allowed a listener to change radio channels remotely. Lamarr was intrigued with this new gadget and scribbled away in her notebooks, figuring out how it worked. She thought this same principle of frequency hopping might be applied to secure radio communications. No one could follow a signal rapidly switching between frequencies, she reasoned.

Rhodes posits that Lamarr’s beauty was a barrier to recognition for her scientific ability. Few people she met took this nascent scientist seriously. Until she met George Antheil – an avant-garde composer – at a party, she was immediately drawn to his inventive mind and the possibility of collaborating with him to fulfill her ambition. It’s said she wrote her phone number on his car windscreen in lipstick to get his attention!

During WW2, the beautiful actress and the avant-garde composer developed a method to prevent the enemy from jamming radio-controlled torpedoes. On August 11, 1942, they were granted US patent 2,292,387 for their invention. This form of frequency hopping for secure communication constitutes the building blocks for current technologies, such as GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. In 2014 Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.



Hedy Lamarr is also known as the Mother of WiFi, for her work to invent the concept of frequency hopping.
Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s patent for a “Secret Communication System”


The Technological Gender Gap

Generally, gender studies in science and technology reveal that this knowledge was instituted based on male epistemological and philosophical biases. In simple terms, men created science, and men built it. The concept of biological determinism was used to limit the potential of women as inventors, perpetuating the myth that women have innately lower abilities than men in certain areas, including science, technology, and games.

This discreditable concept completely ignores the social context in which the subject is inserted. Technological barriers to women are created due to a technological gender gap. This gap refers not only to the obstacles women face in accessing information and communication technologies but also to male-dominated social hierarchical structures and dimensions of how gender operates in the design, distribution, and appropriation of technologies by the female gender.


Academia and the Military-Industrial Complex

While studying the history of significant technological advances, it is possible to identify two gender-based factors. First, men have designed, molded, and disseminated the technology in academia and the military-industrial complex. Second, when women somehow overcome this gap, there is a well-established elimination of female performance. This is illustrated by the fact that in a scientific regard, the names of Ada Lovelace and Hedy Lamarr went unnoticed and unacknowledged for so long. Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was an English writer and mathematician who created a theoretical program for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. A century and a half later, she is now considered the first programmer in computer history.

Additionally, we learn from the history of the internet that academia and the military-industrial complex designed, implemented, programmed, and disseminated it even though the earliest computer programmers were women who made significant contributions to ARPANET and the first desktop computers used to educate predominantly white males.

In her book Internet in Feminine Code: Theories and Practices, author Graciela Nathanson exemplifies children’s experience dismantling their toys to illustrate what she calls “binary, hierarchical, and highly unfavorable technological habitats for girls.” According to the author, boys are encouraged to dismantle and try to reassemble their toys in an exercise of fundamental creative curiosity, not unlike making technology. While girls in the same situation of disassembling their dolls are scolded and discouraged, encouraged to show zeal and responsibility for their belongings, and pushed to the roles of care, social welfare, and reproduction.

Likewise, other writers, Cassell and Jenkins, present data in the 1998 book From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender in Computer Games, corroborating Nathanson’s vision. The authors investigate the American context of the player culture in the 1990s, discussing gender relations in computer games based on cultural references, values, and attributions to games according to the gender of children.

According to them, the misconception that the female gender has no interest in digital games is not due to supposed biological determinism but to the fact that males dominate access to the computer, excluding women from the scene. In this context, the authors cite a study conducted with preschoolers where boys appropriated computers, limiting girls’ access. The lower exposure of girls to computers and games was reflected in their lack of interest in them. However, after the mediation of the teachers guaranteeing equal access for children, both had a similar interest in games.

Additionally, we learn from the history of the internet that white men in academia and the military-industrial complex designed, implemented, programmed, and disseminated it even though the earliest computer programmers were women, who created Despite the fact that the first computer programmers were women who made ARPANET and the first desktop computers, which were used to educate white males.

ARPANET and the earliest desk-sized computers, which educated white men. For instance, Ada Lovelace (1815–1852), an English writer and mathematician, created the first algorithm that a machine could process. She is considered the first woman programmer in history. Similarly, Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000), actress and inventor, created a communications system for the US Armed Forces, which served as the basis for the invention of Wi-Fi and the cell phone. In addition, these intellectual women also contributed to research institutions and the government, spaces that have historically been associated with white male authority and privilege.


Technological Gender Fracture

Several factors directly affect this “technological gender fracture,” such as literacy (after all, it is necessary to read and write to use technological resources), computer education, basic knowledge of the English language (as it predominates in software, websites, and device technology), economic resources to buy and pay for access, production, and dissemination of helpful content for women, and opportunities for female insertion in science and technology development contexts. Furthermore, Nathanson lists three types of digital gender gaps: The ability to access networks, people’s use of technology, and the place of women in production and technological management. So, it is possible to observe three faces of the digital divide:

  1. Access to Networks

According to data, the female gender appropriates mobile games more efficiently, i.e., for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. In contrast, men dominate the spectrum of consoles and computers. The figures also reveal that the use of the Internet through mobile devices in Brazil is the same between genders, with 74% of men and 75% of women claiming to have used the Internet on their cell phones in the last three months. Regarding computers, 63% of men have used one, while only 58% of women have. Moreover, one of the explanations for this research is that the popularization of smartphones and prepaid Internet packages has increased female access to these devices. Most mobile games can be played offline; they do not necessarily depend on mobile Internet or Wi-Fi to function, which requires fewer financial resources and allows women to access these games.

  1. Hierarchy of Gaming

Generally, mobile games are considered “casual” games, as they are hardly taken to professional-level competitions. Therefore, they have little or no publicity and do not grant their players the status of ‘gamers.’ These games are marginalized in the dominant culture of video games, considered less relevant or even ‘girly’ games.

  1. The Industry Silos Women

Data from the 2018 Census in Brazil shows that women represent only 20.7% of the workforce among partners and employees of game production companies. This gap is even more significant if analysis by job function within the industry is applied. Females are overwhelmingly concentrated in marketing, sales, and administration activities, representing only 10.8% in areas directly exposed to technological production, such as programming and project management.


Where do We go From Here?

Women have played a significant role in science and technology. However, most people overlook their considerable contributions owing to male bias in all circles of life. As a result, the significant innovations of many women, such as Hedy Lamarr and others, which should have been recognized, are often relegated to historical footnotes compared to similar achievements made by men.

Women inventors and scientists are available and ready to play a vibrant role in all branches of society. Too often, they are thwarted because they need access to training or organizations where their work would have meaning and impact. Finally, our global responsibility is to provide equal opportunities for men and women in all walks of life.


Edited by Michael Moss



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