International Day of Women in Science: An Unlikely Figure in the Science Realm

February 11 is the day to celebrate women who have contributed to and blazed trails in the field of science and technology––a field that is still largely gender-imbalanced. Women account for less than a third of those employed in scientific research and development across the world. This is the day to celebrate women who put in all their effort and hard work in this field in order to help make the world go round through inventions and discoveries. One woman in particular that stands out is Hedy Lamarr, a 20th century Austrian-born actress with a knack for inventing, who eventually helped form the basis of today’s technology. Lamarr is most known as a beautiful silver screen actress with a career in film spanning from 1938 to 1958. 

 

Lamarr was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1914. From a young age, her father—a bank director—fueled her curiosity in the workings of machinery and cars. As a little girl, Hedy even took apart her music box to understand how it operated. Growing up in a wealthy and cultured family, she excelled in the arts and was proficient in four languages. In Germany, Lamarr appeared in small German films and a controversial film called Ecstasy. After arriving in the U.S in hopes of movie giant Louis B. Mayer, she gained steady star recognition after appearing in films such as Algiers, Ziegfield Girl, and Samson and Delilah. She stunned her audiences with her good looks and foreign accent. However, away from the glamour of Hollywood, Hedy still retained that insatiable curiosity and inventor's mind from her childhood. 

 

During the nights after filming, she would retire to her room and sit at her table, coming up with new ideas for inventions. Her intelligence and knack for new ideas showed when she produced a tablet which dissolved in water to make soda, created an upgraded stoplight for traffic, a dog collar that glowed in the dark, and modifications to the Concorde supersonic aircraft. Lamarr often collaborated with the eccentric billionaire pilot and businessman Howard Hughes, aiding him with new airplane innovations. When stumped for ideas on how to make faster aircrafts to be sold to the military during World War II, she combined the wings of the swiftest bird and the fins of the fastest fish and sketched out an airplane design for Hughes. These were only small things compared to the most significant invention Lamarr ever produced—which was a device that used “frequency hopping” to prevent enemy ships from blocking torpedo guidance signals. Working with George Antheil, a quirky but brilliant music composer, they found a way for the radio transmitter and torpedo receiver to bounce concurrently from frequency to frequency, making it nearly impossible for the enemy to locate and block a message before it had jumped to another frequency. After offering this idea to the U.S Navy, they rejected it. However, during the 1950s and 1960s, their concept was used to create sonobuoys and ships lined with torpedoes guided by a “frequency hopping” system. Although the patent did not expire until 1959, Lamarr and Antheil never received any compensation. 

 

Later in Lamarr’s life, she finally received recognition for her innovations in science and technology. She obtained a Pioneer Award in 1997 from The Electronic Frontier Foundation. She also was the first female to receive the Spirit of Achievement Award from Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass. In 2014, 14 years after her death, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the development of her frequency-hopping technology. Due to these achievements, many have branded Hedy Lamarr as the “mother of Wi-Fi,” and even GPS and BlueTooth which all use the same concept...not bad for a movie star living it up in the golden age of Hollywood, where both beauty and brains are rarely encouraged. 

 

However, this is the day to celebrate all women in science, no matter how many accomplishments, big or little, or how long ago. Hedy Lamarr broke through barriers in her time, and that is something to be highly inspired by.