On the International Day of the Girl Child, A Hat-Tip to Inventor Hedy Lamarr

Did you know that every single day, we hold a piece of women’s history in our hands? It’s true! Believe it or not, you have iconic film star Hedy Lamarr to thank for today’s modern cellular phones.

In 1942, in-tandem with her work as an actress, Hedy Lamarr, along with her friend and science-experiment partner, composer George Antheil, patented an invention that became part of the foundation for the modern cellular phone: a frequency-hopping device that enabled the constant changing of frequencies for radio signals transmitting from ships or airplanes to torpedos. Such frequency-skipping allowed radio signals to be inviolable and aided greatly in improving the accuracy of torpedos. Born from this was today’s spread-spectrum technology that we enjoy each time we use our mobile devices.

It’s hard to believe that the U.S. Navy, to which Lamarr and Antheil had presented their design, initially refused to use this critical technology; it never saw action in World War II. However, unknown to Lamarr and Antheil, the military classified their patent application as top-secret and began using the technology in the 1950s. The patent expired long before the 1990s, when Lamarr began to receive recognition for her invention — something that is reported to have mattered to her far more than any accolades she received for her acting.

I learned about Lamarr’s role in this critical invention in the novel “The Only Woman in the Room” by Marie Benedict. Based on the incredible true story of Hedy Lamarr, Benedict’s novel highlights Lamarr’s work as a scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication.

This great novel highlights something else, too, though — the manner in which Lamarr’s contribution to modern science largely was ignored for decades due to the fact that she was a woman. Time and time again, when Lamarr pressed to be heard, she was told outright that she was out of place, solely because of her gender. We know that the accomplishments of other great women were treated and obscured similarly, like NASA’s “Hidden Figures,” Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the women who performed the calculations enabling America’s first man to launch into space. I’m left to wonder: to how many other women did this happen? What else don’t we know about the foundation on which our world has been built?

As Benedict writes in the author’s note to her book, “unless we begin to view historical women through a broader, more inclusive lens — and rewrite them back into the narrative — we will continue to view the past more restrictively than it likely was, and we risk carrying those perspectives over into the present.” As more and more historical women’s contributions to the modern age are brought to light, I couldn’t agree more.

Like Lamarr, I know what it’s like to be “the only woman in the room.” Today, on the International Day of the Girl Child, that’s far from the case. Now, women aren’t only in the room; we hold seats at the table at every S&P 500 company. And that is something worth celebrating!

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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About Kira Makagon

Kira Makagon is a successful serial entrepreneur and tech industry leader. A graduate of UC Berkeley with both an undergraduate degree in computer science and an MBA, she enjoys sharing her lessons learned from being a veteran “only woman in the room.”

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