Women in Logistics: Inventor-Actress Hedy Lamarr Pioneers Early Bluetooth Tech

Mar 8, 2024

A leading lady in the heart of Hollywood’s golden age, Hedy Lamarr’s film career follows the classic arc of the archetypal movie star: fame and fortune, addiction and scandal, and ultimately a life of seclusion as her once-bright stardom began to wane. It’s a familiar tale — and one which fails to even brush the surface of Lamarr’s extensive influence on the modern age.

While Lamarr’s acting and public life are noteworthy, it is her brilliance as a scientist and inventor that demands closer examination as we celebrate women throughout this week who shaped our modern world.

Here’s how Hedy Lamarr, inventor of frequency hopping (FH) spread spectrum communication, laid the bedrock foundation for some of today’s most ubiquitous technologies.

Hedy Lamarr the Glamorous Film Star

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Jewish parents in Vienna, Lamarr’s naturally curious state led her to an early fascination with science, often asking her father how different devices worked on walks through town. But her analytical side would take a near-permanent backseat to a more scandalous public image at age 18, after Lamarr took a notoriously controversial role in the Czech film Ekstase.

Lamarr later fled Nazi-occupied Austria (and her first marriage to an Austrian munitions manufacturer, more on this later) to Paris in 1937. A fateful trip to London the following year introduced her to MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who promptly offered her a contract worth $125 a week to star as an exotic foreign talent in American media.

Lamarr, on-brand as ever, confidently turned down Mayer’s lowball offer, then even more confidently booked a ticket on the same New York-bound ocean liner as Mayer where she negotiated a $500 per week contract by the time she arrived in the States.

It was Mayer who brought Lamarr to Hollywood, where her allure as “the most beautiful woman in the world” quickly took root. In the years ahead, Lamarr’s stardom and influence would spread throughout Hollywood (traces of her appearance can still be found in Disney’s Snow White and DC Comics’ Catwoman) though she never lost her sense of curiosity or interest in problem-solving.

It was here, removed from her home country for more than a decade and surrounded by an industry that only prized her appearance, that Hedy Lamarr spent her off-time laying the groundwork for what would become her most impactful invention.

Hedy Lamarr the Inventor

Aerospace engineer Howard Hughes once proclaimed the actress a “genius” after seeing sketches of Lamarr’s plane designs inspired by bird wings and fish fins, and her spare time was often spent at home tinkering with inventions using a handful of tools borrowed from Hughes’ workshop.

By all accounts, Lamarr was as capable as any fellow scientist despite a profound lack of resources or support for her interests outside of the silver screen. Her penchant for invention, though often overshadowed by smaller, more scandalous episodes (and exacerbated by a ghostwritten tell-all book she sued for being “fictional, libelous and obscene”), was perhaps best on display during the development of spread spectrum communication.

Accounts differ on what precisely drew Lamarr’s interest in an unjammable torpedo guidance system — some allege the idea was simply the result of a sharp mind identifying a need for innovation at the height of WWII, while others theorize her early marriage to arms dealer Fritz Mandl allowed her access to certain meetings and information highlighting a weakness in radio-controlled weapons.

Whatever the inspiration, by late 1940 Lamarr’s collaboration with composer and friend George Antheil had successfully produced a continuously variable radio signal, utilizing not just one radio frequency to establish communication, but 88 — the full spectrum of keys on Antheil’s piano.

Initially rejected by the National Inventors Council who kindly told Lamarr to just use her celebrity status to sell war bonds and leave inventing to the professionals, Lamarr and Antheil were soon awarded a patent in 1942. The idea would then collect dust in the U.S. Navy’s classified files for almost two decades before its potential applications grew more evident.

By the time her patent was declassified in 1981, another spread spectrum technique (direct sequence) was invented and later implemented in what would become the standard for today’s Wi-Fi. However, Lamarr’s concept of spread spectrum communication and FH methodology remains the direct basis for today’s Bluetooth connectivity.

What Hedy Lamarr Means for Women in Logistics

Lamarr earned nothing by way of financial compensation for her inventions and generally kept her persona as an inventor private, yet without her efforts and imagination, today’s supply chains might appear dramatically different. Wireless communication via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and RFID technologies, advancements in real-time visibility, inventory management, quality control and key analytical insights have become core components of virtually all modern logistics processes.

That’s not to say Lamarr’s invention was the only one of its kind — a handful of other precursors to wireless technologies sprung up around the same time period — but it is instructive to today’s logistics environment to consider what Lamarr managed to achieve while lacking resources, support and formal expertise:

  • Lamarr’s background didn’t include ivy league degrees in physics or mechanical engineering, but of simply letting curiosity steer her toward profound discovery.
  • Her “work experience” wasn’t in a relevant field like electronics or manufacturing, but of the theater and the arts.
  • Her laboratory was a small workbench in her kitchen, her tools on loan from a friend.

On paper, Lamarr couldn’t be further from what a modern recruiter or hiring manager might look for when seeking to fill an open role for “senior product engineer” — and yet, Lamarr proved a powerful source of game-changing ideas.

Today’s professional logistics environment faces a similar challenge in providing women opportunities to fully maximize their capacity for innovation. Though improving, studies reveal women’s’ presence in both frontline and C-suite logistics roles still trailing far behind anything approaching equality.

Particularly in today’s age of intense consumer demand, the industry can hardly afford to leave any bluetooth-like innovations unopened in email inboxes, stashed away in file folders or remain unspoken in team meetings.

The next great supply chain innovation is out there somewhere, and its success relies on rethinking industry-wide hiring, training, coaching, promoting, collaborating and empowering processes to ensure women with ideas, drive and unique insight — women like Lamarr — aren’t being restrained or reduced to superficial tasks.

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