Born 103 years ago this week, Hedy Lamarr is one of the 20th centuries beautiful women: a star of classic Hollywood whose face takes your breath away 17 years after her death. But Lamarr was much more than an actress – she was an inventor way ahead of her time.
On August 11, 1942, Lamarr was granted a patent for a “Secret Communication System”, an invention she hoped would help the war effort, that was a precursor to modern wireless communication.
From Europe to Hollywood
Born in Vienna on November 9th 1914, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler earned notoriety at the age of 19 swimming nude in the film ‘Ecstasy’ - one of the first films to include nudity.
At the age of 20, she married Fritz Mandl, a munitions manufacturer linked to fascists – Mussolini and Hitler allegedly attended parties at their house. It was during these parties with engineers and weapons experts that Lamarr developed an understanding of military devices.
Mandl was incredibly controlling and disapproved of her acting career – he allegedly tried to buy up all copies of Ecstasy – and in 1937 Lamarr, with ambitions to be an actress, escaped to Paris with her jewels.
She made across the Atlantic, arriving on the ‘Normandie’ complete with a contract at MGM (the most prestigious studio in Hollywood) and a new name “Hedy Lamarr”, after the dead silent-screen Barbara La Marr.
Her debut in Algiers (1938) made her a star and she was known as “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World”. Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her, putting her in mediocre films, she turned down roles in classics like ‘Casablanca’ (1942) and ‘Laura’ (1944).
Frequency hopping and the patent
Lamarr wasn’t a fan of the Hollywood party scene and spent much of her spare time inventing at home. Early inventions included a ‘bouillon’ cube that dissolved in water turning it into a soft drink, and a chair for sitting down in the shower.
When the war started in 1939, Lamarr (like so many Europeans exiled in Hollywood) wanted to help.
She was upset by news German U-Boats were torpedoing civilian ships so teamed up with George Antheil (a composer she met at a party) and started thinking of ways a torpedo could be made more accurate.
Radio-controlled torpedoes could be jammed, causing the torpedo to go off-course. Lamarr’s solution was ‘frequency hopping’ whereby the radio signal swaps between different frequencies at a fast rate, making it harder for the signal to be tracked by the enemy and jammed.
On August 11 1942 the pair were granted US patent 2,292,387 - Lamarr using her married name Hedy Kiesler Markey. Antheil detailed a way of making it work using a miniature player-piano mechanism:
“This invention relates broadly to secret communication systems involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies, and is especially useful in the remote control of dirigible craft, such as torpedoes.
“Briefly, our system as adapted for radio control of a remote craft, employs a pair of synchronous records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, which change the tuning of the transmitting and receiving apparatus from time to time, so that without knowledge of the records an enemy would be unable to determine at what frequency a controlling impulse would be sent.”
Lamarr and Anthiel gave the patent to the US Navy, which failed to see the potential, and the patent expired. The technology, in a different format, was used on ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in later GPS technology.
Frequency hopping in modern life
In the 1980s the technology was declassified and, according to Lamarr’s biographer Richard Rhodes, it began to be used in car radios, mobile phones, wireless telephones and Bluetooth for a different reason.
“The problem is you have a low-powered signal between (for example) a cellphone and the central tower, if everything is on one frequency they are going to be interfering with each other.
“But if every phone can hop around from frequency to frequency, you can have 800, 1000, 40,000 to 100,00 phones communication with tower and they won’t interfere with each other in any way that is meaningful.”
By the 1950s Lamarr’s acting career had fizzled out. She spent her final years a virtual recluse after bad plastic surgery.
For many years her work as an inventor was largely unknown which, according to Rhodes, frustrated her, but not for monetary reasons: “She didn’t want any money for it - she and George gave it to the Navy for free - but like most people who make discoveries and inventions she at least wanted credit. And that did finally come to her.”
Early wireless engineers discovered her work and in 1997 the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) honoured Lamarr with a Pioneer Award. When told about the award, she said: “It’s about time.”
In 2014 she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Now, over seven decades later our technology-filled, wireless driven world owes a lot to Hedy Lamarr.