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By Melanie Phillips on

Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood inventor

Did you know there's a Hollywood star who also has a secret life as a scientist?

Now I’m not talking about John Boyega or Jennifer Lawrence, but about Hedy Lamarr, star of dozens of movies in the 1940s and also Produced Moon’s Reporting for Duty, a phone-based game set during the Second World War for Manchester Science Festival 2017.

But Hedy wasn’t only a movie star, and it’s not her performances that featured in Reporting for Duty… Hedy was also an inventor, and in fact her invention, a ‘Secret Communication System’, is something we still use today—it’s how WiFi and Bluetooth work. So next time you’re using WiFi or bluetooth you can thank Hedy!

Hedy’s ‘Secret Communication System’ was invented during WW2, and it was originally designed to help ships fire torpedoes, which are underwater missiles. Torpedoes are impressive but difficult weapons to control, and they would often go off course and land in the wrong place, causing lots of damage. Hedy realised that there was an urgent need for a system that could reliably control these torpedoes.

Radio contact between the torpedo and the ship that it was sent from was a good solution, but with one key problem. If the opposing forces worked out what frequency the torpedo and the ship were communicating on then they could just block that frequency. Control would be lost, and the torpedo would go off course.

Hedy and a composer called George Antheil solved this problem by creating a system that allowed the torpedo and the ship to communicate by jumping between different radio frequencies. Because the frequency kept changing the connection became impossible to intercept!

Hedy is fascinating because she lived a double life as a Hollywood star and an inventor. The ‘Secret Communication System’ wasn’t Hedy’s only invention—in fact she invented throughout her life, creating improved tissue boxes and a tablet that you could dissolve into water to make it taste like coca-cola. Hedy’s inventions all seem to solve a problem—she looked at the world and tried to improve it.

Hedy was both a movie actress and a serious inventor, and while being both is what makes her incredible it was also the thing that stood in her way. No one took Hedy’s ‘Secret Communications System’ seriously and she was basically told to go back to acting and give up on her silly inventions.

Hedy was constantly silenced and told that she wasn’t the right person to be an inventor, that perhaps she should go and try something else. And for me this is why her story is so important to tell. Anyone can be an inventor, it doesn’t matter who you are, what your background is, what other people think. If you’ve got an idea—make it happen!

Did you enjoy this blog? Why not check out some more of the posts in our women in science collection?

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