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Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-born American movie star of the 1930s and 1940s and who is less well-known as an inventor, whose work was ahead of its time and eventually led to the invention of WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS. This 2011 PBS documentary is the story of her life.

Lamarr fled from Austria and a stifling young marriage to an arms dealer. A few years later, feeling uncomfortable with her Hollywood wealth at the beginning of World War II and having significant knowledge of secret weapons and the technological challenges of the time, she sought to do what she could to help win against the Nazis. She had the idea for a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed and with her friend, composer and pianist George Antheil, developed a device that synchronized a miniaturized player-piano mechanism with radio signals, which they patented in 1942.

At the time, the US Navy was not receptive to considering inventions coming from outside the military but in 1962 an updated version of their design finally appeared on Navy ships.

Lamarr had a tumultuous love life and was divorced 6 times. By the time she was 50, she was washed-up in Hollywood and destitute, unable to provide for her 3 children. In the 1980s, her spread spectrum, Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), frequency-hopping invention finally paid off, with the advent of cellphones and standardized wireless communications.

Lamarr passed away in 2000 at the age of 85. In 2014, Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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Alexandra Bruce

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