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Happy Birthday Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood Star Turned Scientist

The beauty had brains—after all, she invented the tech behind Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS

smithsonian.com

She was once called “the most beautiful woman in the world.” But Hedy Lamarr had more than just looks—the Hollywood star was also a brilliant scientist and inventor. In honor of what would have been her 101st birthday, Google is even featuring Lamarr in an animated Doodle that gives a glimpse of her fascinating story.

Born in Austria, Lamarr made her name as a sex object in movies like the scandalous Ecstasy. She rubbed shoulders with the likes of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini at parties thrown by her first husband, a Viennese arms merchant who forced her to leave the movie business. But Lamarr was unhappy in her marriage and disgusted by her husband’s “shady business dealings with Nazi industrialists,” writes Jennifer Ouellette for Scientific American, so she escaped Austria for Paris, London and eventually the United States in the late 1930s.

She became a movie sensation in the United States, but her experience in military munitions served her well. Ouellette writes that when Lamarr started talking with her neighbor, composer George Antheil, she revealed a keen mind for inventions. When they discussed how to protect radio-controlled torpedoes from outside interference, she suggested that it would be harder to jam a frequency that’s always changing.

Antheil, who was best known for a composition that synchronized 16 player pianos, contributed his experience with synchronizing mechanical devices and together, the pair invented a torpedo guidance system that used frequency hopping to protect the weapons. They were granted a patent in 1942, but had a hard time convincing others to take their work seriously.

Today, Lamarr’s invention is given much more respect—it’s the basis for modern Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS technologies. In a blog about the Google Doodle, illustrator Jennifer Hom shows a bit more about the process behind the homage—a reminder that brains and beauty can very happily coexist.

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