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Women in Tech: The One and Only Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr Founder of wireless

I knew about the other side of Hedy Lamarr, just minutes after I found out that Bali Startupers’ very own Andrea Loubier was going to exhibit Mailbird in Tech in Asia’s Singapore conference along with other female startup founders (aka Women in Tech)

This is a part of the tech media’s effort to pay homage to women in science and tech in response to the International Women’s Day.

I was looking for a story, in my effort to echo that spirit, when I stumbled upon a book written about the Hollywood star: Hedy’s Folly. The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

Scrounging for everything I could find on her, it turned out that our “introduction” had taken place years before, in form of a rerun of Samson and Delilah on TVRI (this is Indonesia’s government-own television station).

More Than a Pretty Face

Hedy Lamarr (b.1914-d. 2000 – IMDb) was a Hollywood actress in the 40s. She got a look that kills and a set of brains that matches that looks, if not more. Besides the thirty-ish movies that she starred in and the title of “the most beautiful woman in the world” that she bore, Hedy Lamarr was also the co-inventor of what decades(!) later would become the wireless technology of today.

Her CV would be really amazing to look at. The first ever portrayal of orgasm on screen (in Ecstasy)? Check. (Is that worth mentioning? Sure. Why not? It only shows her breakthrough side even more. It was released in 1933! The US even initially banned that movie). Starring as the classic red-headed femme fatale in Samson and Delilah? Check. Shared the screen with Clark “The King” Gable? Check. Inventor and patent holder of the spread spectrum technology (whatever that is) that makes CDMA, Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth technology possible? Check!

If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought something like this is nothing more than movie materials.

It’s no wonder that Google dedicated a doodle out of respect for her in what would be her 101th birthday, November 9, 2015.

Lamarr has kind of a mythical status at Google–Jennifer HomLamarr’s Doodle Designer

Hedy Lamarr’s first try at inventing was a better traffic light. It was followed by her take on making an effervescent tablet that turned to be a complete an utter flop. Aiming for a better-tasted carbonated drink like Coca-Cola, she made an antacid-like liquid instead.

Necessity is the mother of all inventions people said. For her, the World War II served for that purpose. The news of Nazi’s submarines that purposely targeting civilian ships was all that she needed to start doing something.

Her initial plan was for the Navy to have a mechanization for remote-controlled torpedoes. The remote signal however, was prone to signal jamming in naval warfare.

Long story short…together with a composer friend, George Antheil, she used the principles of how pianos worked to identify a way to prevent German submarines from jamming the Allies’ radio signals.

Just as a piano player holds and changes notes at different intervals to make a melody, their invention held and changed radio frequencies to make an unbreakable code. Signals could be transmitted without being detected, deciphered, or jammed.
The frequency hopping technique that resulted from their experiments became the principle that the wireless tech of today utilizes. They filed it under the name of “Secret Communications System” and donated it to the Navy for immediate application.
Hedy Lamarr Secret Communications System

Hedy Lamarr’s “Secret Communications System” US Patent Sheet

Lack of resources prevented the Navy to apply her invention directly when the WWII ravaged on. In fact, Hedy Lamarr‘s invention was almost being totally forgotten if yet another crisis didn’t take place, namely the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). That was 3 full years after the patent had expired.

Not just that. Not until 1997 her contributions to the field of spread-spectrum technology was recognized.
Personally, I think she deserved better than that.

Women in Tech

Technology is a world full of dudes. Let’s admit it. It has been like that for years. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. More and more women take the leadership roles in the science and technology fields. There is Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO; Sheryl Sandberg,  Facebook’s COO (and formerly, Google’s VP for Global Sales and Op ); Electronic Arts’ Jade Raymond whose tenure at Ubisoft produced every teenage boy’s favorite: Assassin’s Creed, or Elizabeth Holmes the co-founder and CEO of the medical startup Theranos.

The list goes on and on, but you get the picture already. And there will be much more to come from all around the globe. In her post on Women’s Day, for example, Sheryl Sandberg took the time to praise Indonesia’s own Aulia Halimatussadiah, the founder of NulisBuku.com (FB feed here), about how her story inspired her. This is something that in turn will inspire other women to join the ranks.

The world needs to know more about women’s achievements in science and technology. From Marie Curie to Lamarr, from a well-respected COO to some obscure female developers in some bootstrapped startups.

Their stories need to be heard. And be heard they shall!

women in tech

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Work at Bedforest & Bali Startupers’ Ministry of Propaganda

1 Comment

  1. Pure genius

    Reply

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