Hedy Lamarr: The Glamorous Film Star Who Gave Us Wireless Communication
Hedy was as clever at outsmarting men in real life as she was on the silver screen. She once eluded her controlling, German-arms manufacturing husband, Friedrich Mandel, by running into a German brothel. When her husband began a search of the brothel, Hedy hid in a vacant room. When a man came in the room, Hedy got intimate with him to avoid being discovered by her husband and the SS officers. It was her husband’s grand parties, attended by Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, which led her to escape Nazi Germany in 1937. To make her way out of Germany, she drugged her maid (who resembled Hedy), put on the maid’s uniform and grabbed her ID, then fled to Paris, France, without being discovered.
Historians of Hollywood, who have written about Hedy Lamarr for more than 70 years, forget to mention that Hedy Lamarr was one of the great inventors of the 20th century. Hedy is right up there with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva Edison.
In 1940, living in Hollywood, Hedy met composer George Antheil. Hedy and Antheil were neighbors. One evening, she asked Antheil how she could enlarge her breasts. The conversation went from breasts to weapons. Hedy and Antheil began talking about torpedoes. The idea itself was not new, but the idea of frequency-hopping was new. Hedy brought up the subject of radio control. Lamarr and Antheil worked on the idea for several months, and in 1942 they received the United States Patent #2,292,387 for their “Secret Communication System.” Living in Nazi Germany, Hedy was forced to attend meetings with her husband, where she learned about radio-guided missiles, and that radio could easily be jammed. The Lamarr-Antheil version of frequency hopping used a piano roll to change 88 frequencies, and was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or to jam. Hedy once told a friend she worked on the invention to stick it to the Nazis. The enormous significance of the Lamarr-Antheil invention was not realized until decades later. It was first implemented by naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961, and subsequently emerged in numerous military applications. But most importantly, the spread spectrum technology that Lamarr helped invent would galvanize the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines, and other wireless operations possible.
As is the case with many famous women inventors, Lamarr received very little recognition of her innovative talent at the time. In 1997, she was honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, and later in the same year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE Gnass Spirit Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed “the Oscar of inventing.” Hedy proved she was not just another pretty face in Hollywood.
I always saw Hedy at parties. The paparazzi were always swarming around her. No one, I’m sure, in those days knew that the screen diva they were photographing was one of the great minds of the 20th century. Theatrical agent Earl Mills brought Hedy to my home for dinner. The conversation that evening around the table was anything but memorable. If I had known about Hedy the Inventor, I can assure you it would have been one of those evenings in your life you never forget.
Hedy Lamarr shattered stereotypes and earned a place among the 20th century’s most important women inventors. She truly was a visionary whose technological acumen was far ahead of its time. Hedy Lamarr passed away in January 2000, at her home in Orlando, Florida. Her legacy and the contribution to wireless communication will live forever.