11 August 1942: Screen goddess Hedy Lamarr invents Wi-Fi

Well, not quite. But she was granted patent no. US2292387 on this day in 1942, along with composer George Antheil, for a ‘frequency hopping communication system’, that was intended to control torpedoes without the enemy being able to discover what frequency was being used.

Hedy Lamarr and Antheil’s technology was adapted from ‘player pianos’, which use perforated paper rolls to play the music. The principle was built on over the years, and the same technology – now known as ‘spread-spectrum broadcasting’ – forms the basis of much of today’s wireless communications: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mobile phones, GPS, etc.

At the time, however, the technology was ignored. Lamarr was dismissed, and told to go and advertise war bonds if she wanted to contribute. It was not until the Cuban Missile Crisis that the patent was dusted down and put into practical use.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria in 1914, Lamarr married a munitions manufacturer, where she gained a knowledge of weapons systems. But the marriage was unhappy, and his increasing involvement with the Nazis and Mussolini’s Fascists led her to leave.

In 1937, she emigrated to Hollywood, where she changed her name and became a huge star for MGM film studios.

But movies were not her only passion. She was an inveterate tinkerer, and had a room full of technical equipment in her Hollywood home. She would retire to her drafting table, where he had “lots more fun being scientific” than being in movies.

In 1997, Lamarr was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, which recognises “significant and influential contributions to the development of computer-based communications”.

In the same year, she was given the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, known fittingly as the ‘Oscars of Inventing’. And in 2014, she was inducted into the American National Inventors’ Hall of Fame.

Also on this day

11 August 1968: the last steam passenger service in Britain

On this day in 1968, the ‘Fifteen Guinea Special’, Britain’s last mainline steam passenger train, ran from Liverpool to Carlisle, ahead of British Railways’ steam ban. Read more here.

• See all our days in history here.

Merryn

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