The Hollywood Starlet Who Made Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Possible

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Who doesn’t love Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-born movie actress who starred in such classic movies as 1941′s Ziegfeld Girl or 1944′s Experiment Perilous? Of course, if the life of a glamorous movie star of the black and white era doesn’t interest you, there’s also the minor fact that she invented a device that would eventually lead to the development of GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

According to a new book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes, Lamarr and her business partner George Antheil were awarded a patent in 1942 for a “secret communication system” intended for radio-guided torpedoes that would become the bedrock of modern mobile communication technology.

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Their patent, for what was called a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum invention, centered around the idea of frequency hopping using a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies. Lamarr was inspired by Antheil’s earlier experimentation with automated musical instruments, including his 1924 soundtrack for the film Ballet Mecanique. At the time, their gift to the world went nowhere. Or, more correctly, it went to the U.S. Navy, who filed it away and didn’t investigate the idea for 20 years until it was put into practice during a military blockade of Cuba.

If the U.S. Navy wasn’t sufficiently appreciative, the rest of the world wasn’t so willing to ignore the non-acting talents of the woman who’d made the world safe for cell companies everywhere; in 1998, Wi-LAN bought 49% of Lamarr’s claim to the lapsed patent for an undisclosed sum, and Germany has been celebrating Inventors Day on Lamarr’s birthday, November 9, since 2005. Not bad for a woman whose largest contribution to the world had previously been considered to have been her looks during MGM’s Golden Age.

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Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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