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Google Celebrates the 101st Birthday of Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood Legend and Badass Inventor

Today is Hedy Lamarr’s 101st birthday, and Google celebrates with this awesome doodle that captures both Lamarr’s glamour and her contributions to technology.

If you’re a fan of classic Hollywood films, you know Lamarr from such films as I Take This Woman with Spencer Tracy or Comrade X with Clark Gable. However, something for which she’s only really been acknowledged since the late 1990s is her contribution to technology during World War II. For years, she nurtured her interest in science, which she turned to stave off the boredom of constantly being cast in roles without substance that traded on her looks and sexuality, but didn’t actually give her anything to do. (Seems like very little has changed for women in Hollywood, huh?)

Lamarr was an inventor who started with things like an improved traffic signal and a carbonated drink from a tablet you drop in water (which she even admitted tasted like crap). Then, during World War II, she wanted to help the war effort beyond using her celebrity to help sell war bonds. Her first marriage was to an arms merchant, and so she learned some things about torpedoes. A big problem with radio-controlled torpedoes at the time was that their frequencies could easily be jammed. So she, along with her good friend, neighbor, and composer, George Antheil, created a frequency-hopping system based on piano. They used a player-piano roll to randomly change a radio signal sent between a controller and the torpedo within a range of eighty-eight frequencies (based on a piano having eighty-eight keys). This would make it difficult for an enemy to jam all eighty-eight frequencies, as that would require too much power.

What must have been disappointing for Lamarr at the time is that, while she and Antheil got a patent for their design in 1942, it was met with opposition by the US Navy and wasn’t used during the war. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that US military ships started using the technology – after the patent had expired.

It was Lamarr’s being awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1997 for her contributions to the tech field that led to her and Antheil getting the recognition they deserve for their invention. Their frequency-hopping design has since led to spread-spectrum communication technology, which is how things like GPS, Bluetooth, and wi-fi function. So, you have Hedy Lamarr to thank every time you successfully post a selfie on Instagram, or get to where you need to go using Waze.

Happy birthday, Ms. Lamarr. You are a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when women turn away from the superficial demands of a sexist society and use our intelligence, natural talents, and learned skills for the greater good.

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