She was called “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” – and as a Hollywood movie star, Hedy Lamarr was certainly one of the most stunningly beautiful women of the twentieth century. But while she was famous for lighting up the big screen, in private Hedy Lamarr was working on an invention designed to help save the free world.
As a child in Vienna, the young Hedwig Kiesler dreamed of being in the movies – and at sixteen, she dropped out of school to pursue her acting career. Which went swimmingly well: one of her early breaks was a nude swim in the racy Czech film Extase.
But young Hedy, as she was now called, would briefly retire from acting. She married a wealthy arms dealer at nineteen, and what seemed like commanding authority in courtship was actually controlling domination in marriage – her husband, Friedrich Mandl, was an extremely jealous man. He tried to obtain and destroy every copy of Extase, and refused to allow Hedy to act, or to even go out on her own without spying on her.
This was not a happy marriage for an intelligent and ambitious young woman: Friedrich basically expected Hedy to act as arm candy while he hosted business dinners. But there was another problem: the prospect of another great war was looming over Europe, and even wealthy Viennese arms dealers were at risk: while Friedrich was opportunistically selling munition components to whoever wanted to buy, as a Jew he could be conveniently discredited (or worse) by the rising Nazi party. And being half-Jewish, Hedy must have felt the pressure herself as she and her husband entertained German military bigwigs. Finally, not wanting to be trapped in her marriage or in war, Hedy packed up her jewels and sneaked off to London.
Luckily she met Louis B. Mayer in London, and while sailing on the same ship with him and his wife to America, she managed to get a favorable contract. Signed to MGM Studios, she changed her last name to Lamarr, and her career took off. She played a typically glamorous woman of unknown origin in most of her films, and worked steadily. But Hedy didn’t drink, or party hard, and even required social appearances were something of a bore to her.
What Hedy liked to do was invent. She had a special corner set up in her house, with a drafting table. And like many inventors, some of the things she invented seem nonsensical to us: with a couple chemists lent to her by Howard Hughes, she invented a bouillon cube that would flavor water into a cola-like beverage. She also invented a tissue-box attachment to dispose of used tissue.
But when German submarines torpedoed and sank a ship evacuating British schoolchildren from London, Hedy realized that her interests – and her past – could be useful in saving lives. She first offered her overheard knowledge of German torpedo technology to the National Inventors Council, but she also decided to work on inventions of her own.
Her partner in this was a new friend, George Antheil, a modern composer whose most famous symphony, the Ballet Mécanique, had caused riots at its performances in Paris and New York. In staging these outrageous concerts, George had tried to automate the synchronizing of player pianos – his score called for sixteen of them, as well as several bass drums, a siren, and three different airplane propellers. He had not succeeded in this, as the cost and logistics were too prohibitive, but he had succeeded in laying out the fundamentals well enough to apply for a French patent.
At the time, American torpedoes were massively unreliable: 60 percent of them were duds, and most of them missed their targets completely. Hedy had likely overheard German munitions experts discussing torpedo technology over dinners in Vienna, and in her talks with George they came up with an idea: to use radio frequencies to communicate with the torpedoes. Hedy also came up with her best idea yet: if the transmitter and receiver can be coordinated change their frequency randomly, the radio signal cannot be jammed, either by other torpedoes or by enemy interference.
This “frequency-hopping”, as it was dubbed, may have been inspired by George and Hedy’s impromptu piano playing as well as by her knowledge of German defense technology. We’ll never know. But while she was working on Ziegfield Girl with Lana Turner and Judy Garland, she and George were working out the practical details of this idea, utilizing George’s knowledge of player piano rolls to come up with the final schematics. They succeeded in making their ideas clear: they were awarded Patent No. 2,292,387 in 1942. Here are the schematics:
Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy didn’t use the technology – the official reason was that the technology was too heavy. George Antheil later stated that it may have been the comparison to player pianos that gave them that idea – as the idea was for radio control, the mechanism could have been miniaturized to the size of a wristwatch! But the rejection dispirited Hedy, and she pursued other means to help with the Allied war effort. Since she was on strike against MGM over a pay dispute, she headed East to sell war bonds, selling over $25 million worth in about two weeks.
The frequency-hopping technology was filed away as Top Secret by the U.S. Navy, so it languished until the mid 1950’s, when it was revealed to defense contractors to assist them in developing new weapons systems. As Hedy had signed the documents “Hedy Kiesler-Markey” (after her second husband), the innovation wasn’t attributed to her for years. But the technology outlined in the patent was an essential development in modern communications technology. It came to be called spread spectrum, and was released to consumer developers for commercial use. Today, it’s an essential technology behind remote controls, wireless phones, and WiFi.
Hedy watched all these developments from afar, but wasn’t credited for a long time. And as the patent had expired, engineers utilizing it weren’t required to pay her any fees – though she wished they would have: her Hollywood money had dried up. Ironically, it was the increased communication of the Internet that finally enabled her to get some of the credit she deserved. A retired U.S. Army colonel named David Hughes had fallen in love with Hedy when he was a boy – and as an adult, discovered her invention as he was researching a grant to provide wireless access for rural schools. He started a campaign on her behalf on the early Internet community the Well, eventually winning her (and George Antheil) an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997.
Hedy Lamarr was not content to be just a pretty face – she famously said: “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” That she managed to create a space for her own intellect in the space of Hollywood stardom is a remarkable achievement; that her co-invention continues to be a basic technology for wireless communication is a marvel.