Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood Actress and Inventor

“Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

In 1933 Hedy Lamarr provoked outrage across Europe when she appeared naked in the Czech film, Ecstasy. But there was more to Hedy than just her sexuality; in 1942, she secured a patent from the United States Government for a ‘secret communication system’ that would help the Allies in the fight against Hitler. Though her system was never used by the US military, it forms the basis for much of our modern technology, from anti-jamming devices to wireless Internet.

Hedy LamarrHedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna on 9 November 1913. During her teens she attended Max Reinhardt’s famous acting school in Berlin and in 1937 signed a lucrative contract worth $500 per week with Hollywood’s MGM Studios. The release of her first movie for MGM, Algiers, in 1938 propelled Hedy, now known as Miss Lamarr, into the American spotlight and she went on to become one of the most successful actresses of the 1930s and 1940s.

It was probably her first marriage that got Hedy Lamarr interested in the development of weapons systems. As the wife of Friedrich Mandl, a prominent Viennese fascist and munitions manufacturer, Hedy had been party to his research and development of radio-controlled torpedoes and other weaponry. Though the marriage had ended in 1937, Hedy’s interest in the topic did not and in the summer of 1940 she began discussing such topics with American avant-garde composer, George Antheil.

Frequency hopping

Hedy developed the idea of ‘frequency hopping’ a method of guidance signal for torpedoes that distributed the signal over several frequencies and thus made it less vulnerable to enemy jamming. Hedy described this idea to George who then set to work on bringing it to life. After pitching to the National Inventors Office and working with the California Institute of Technology, Hedy and George were finally granted a patent for their frequency hopping device – a system that used a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies making it harder for enemies to detect radio-guided torpedoes.

A demonstration to the US Navy followed but the design was met with fierce criticism and never adopted.  The device was only used for the first time in 1962 when it was installed on ships sent to blockade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. More recently Hedy’s idea has formed the basis for modern spread-spectrum technology that includes Bluetooth and the technology used in Wi-Fi networks.

It was only in 1997 that Hedy’s scientific talent was finally recognised when she was honoured with a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  Later that year she became the first woman to receive the ‘Oscar of Inventing’, the Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.

Hedy Lamarr died on 19 January 2000 at the age of 86.

You can see the original patent here.

Kaye Jones

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One thought on “Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood Actress and Inventor

  1. LaMarr’s secret communication system was based on radio frequencies changing at irregular periods that were synchronized between transmitter and receiver. The purpose of the invention was to provide a simple, reliable method of secret communication that was difficult to decipher and would be useful in the remote control of dirigible craft, such as torpedoes. The two donated their patent as their contribution to the war effort, but the invention was deemed impractical to implement and not used during World War II. However, twenty years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the secret communication system was installed on naval ships and subsequently extensively used in other military applications. The spread spectrum technology Lamarr helped to invent would become the foundation of digital communications evolving into today’s cell technology and wireless applications.

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