Hedy Lamarr: Mother of Invention - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Hedy Lamarr: Mother of Invention

Hedy Lamarr, the exotically beautiful star of Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 1940’s, was more than just a pretty face on the silver screen. She was also an inventor whose greatest contribution laid the groundwork for today’s wireless communications, including cellular phones, computer networks and other wireless data systems.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, she started acting in 1933, at age 18. Her role in the film Ecstasy, which included a few brief nude scenes, made her famous and notorious. At 19, she married a rich Austrian munitions manufacturer named Friedrich Mandl, who bought up as many copies of the film as he could, to restrict public viewings.

Mandl was closely associated with the fascist governments of Italy and Germany, and sold munitions to Mussolini. He also kept his young wife a virtual prisoner in their home, a castle known as Schloss Schwarzenau, where he entertained both the Italian dictator and Adolf Hitler.
He also brought her along to meetings with scientists and engineers designing new weapons for the fascist regimes. It was at these meetings that the young woman was introduced to the applied science of military technology.

Escape and fame

Lamarr soon came to hate both her husband and the fascist regimes with which her husband socialized and did business with. She escaped her virtual imprisonment and fled to Paris, where she met Hollywood studio head Louis B. Mayer, who hired her and moved her to the States, dubbing her “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Her film career took off and she became a major star playing opposite such actors as Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart.
When she wasn’t acting she began inventing. Early efforts included improved stoplights and flavored tablets which when dissolved in water created flavored carbonated drinks.

But the U.S. had entered World War II, and she wanted to contribute to the war effort. She was horrified by the destruction of Allied shipping by German U-boats, and set herself the goal of inventing a countermeasure to the enemy’s ability to jam the radio signals meant to guide Allied torpedoes.

She teamed with another unlikely, unsung partner, an avant-garde musician and composer named George Antheil, who used multiple player pianos in his works. He just happened to be her neighbor in California.

Birth of a breakthrough

Radio directed torpedoes used by the Allies could easily be sent off-course by enemy jamming of the frequency of the control signal. Lamarr had learned about torpedoes at the meetings she attended with her ex-husband.

Together with Antheil the two hit upon the concept of frequency hopping to avoid jamming. This they accomplishing using the mechanism from a player piano to generate a guiding radio signal that unpredictably shifted frequency in short bursts within the range of 88 frequencies (the number of black and white keys on a piano), the sequence of which would be identical to the controlling launcher and the torpedo itself. The prototype the two built used the mechanism from one of the composer’s player pianos.

WTUS Pre WWII Kansas torpedo. (Public Domain)

WTUS Pre WWII Kansas torpedo. (Public Domain)

Ahead of her time

Though the two were granted a patent on the concept, which they donated to the U.S. Navy, the method was not implemented, though it was deemed effective enough to be classified top secret by the government. It wasn’t until the U.S. Naval blockade of Cuba in 1962 that the technology, known as frequency hopping, came into military use.

An outgrowth of this idea was modern spread spectrum communication technology, used in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi networks and cellular technology.

Lamar wanted to continue her scientific research to help the war effort as a member of the National Inventors Council, but was steered away from this course by government officials, who said she’d be more effective using her star power and celebrity selling war bonds.

Posthumous recognition

It wasn’t until 1997 that her scientific breakthroughs were recognized and honored with special awards at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Sixth Pioneer Awards. The two were cited for their “trailblazing development of a technology that has become a key component of wireless data systems.”

Anniex - Lammar in Samson and Delilah.

Anniex – Lammar in Samson and Delilah.

In 2014 Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The actress accomplished all this while she was one of the leading stars in Hollywood. She would return home from a day’s work shooting footage for the film she was working on, and work at night on an architects drafting table in her home office.

Though she is remembered for her film roles, most famously for Samson and Delilah, opposite Victor Mature, her scientific achievements remain relatively unremarked. But her work in the field formed the basis of modern telecommunications.

Though it’s a cliche that life is stranger than fiction, Hedy Lamarr’s story cannot be described in any other words.

About the author

Paul Croke

Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology. Contact the author.

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