The Hollywood Starlet Who Pioneered Wireless Technology: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr’s story is not an uncommon one in the glamourous and tumultuous world of Hollywood’s golden age. Called “the most beautiful woman in Europe”, the Austrian woman filmed a controversial sex scene in Germany in 1933, ran away from her husband to move to Paris, and signed a contract with MGM head Louis B. Mayer himself. Alongside her acting career, Hedy Lamarr alleviated her growing boredom as an inventor. In 1942 she patented something called a ‘frequency-hopping spread spectrum’ — the precursor to modern Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

All photos from Wikimedia Commons

A Life In Ecstasy

Lamarr was born to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1914. Though her mother later converted to Catholicism, Lamarr was still forced to use her influence as an actress to get her rescued from Nazi-controlled Austria in later years. She was first discovered by producer Max Reinhart and brought to Berlin, where she trained in theatre before returning to Vienna to begin a career in film.

Lamarr was only 18 when she starred in the controversial film Ecstasy, in which she played a neglected young wife, married to a much older man. This film was notorious for its depiction of female sexuality — showing a close up of her face in the throes of orgasm, as well as nude scenes in which the character swims and runs through the woods. It is known as one of — if not the first non-pornographic film to ever include a sex scene.

At the age of 19 Hedy Lamarr married Friedrich Mandl, her first husband (she would end up remarrying another five times.) Her husband was wealthy — reputedly the third richest man in Austria at the time — but also incredibly jealous, unsurprisingly raising objections to her risqué orgasm scene in Ecstasy. Lamarr claimed in her autobiography that he essentially kept her a prisoner in the castle they called home. A military arms merchant, Mandl allegedly had close ties with the fascist government in Italy and the Nazi government in Germany. Lamarr even claims that Mandl had hosted Mussolini and Hitler at lavish parties at his estate. While her marriage by all accounts was an unhappy one, it was thanks to the conferences and business meetings in military technology that she attended with Mandl that introduced her to the field of applied science — which would eventually lead to her career as an inventor.

Finally, Lamarr decided she had to escape her controlling husband — and accounts of this event range from Hedy disguising herself as a maid and fleeing to Paris, to stories of the budding actress wearing all of her jewellery out at once for a dinner, and then disappearing with it. In Paris she met Louis B. Mayer, the studio head at MGM who was scouting for talent in Europe at the time. Up until this point she had been acting under the name ‘Hedy Kiesler’, but Mayer insisted she be known as Hedy Lamarr, to avoid the connotation that her family name had with the now notorious Ecstasy.

The World’s Most Beautiful Woman

She arrived in Hollywood in 1938, becoming a sensation after her very first film was released that year. With a path paved by other “exotic” and seductive European actresses like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, Lamarr was assured for success from the beginning. She made 18 films between 1940 and 1948, often cast in the role of the seductive, exotic woman. Inevitably, Lamarr grew bored of the lack of a challenge that acting presented, so in her spare time she turned to inventing.

“Hedy didn’t drink. She didn’t like to party,” NPR was told by Richard Rhodes, an author who recently compiled a biography of the Hollywood starlet with a focus on Lamarr as an inventor. “Her idea of a good evening was a quiet dinner party with some intelligent friends where they could discuss ideas — which sounds so un-Hollywood, but Hedy had to find something else to do to occupy her time.”

As a child in Austria she had reportedly always been interested in science, though it was her career as an actor that she ended up pursuing. It was only when she was driven to distraction by that very acting career that she rekindled that interest in science.

Lamarr’s inventing career began when she had a drafting table installed in her house, after which she went to work on her inventions. Her early inventions included an improvement on the design of a traffic light, along with a tablet that could be dropped into a glass of water to produce a beverage like Coca-Cola. Hedy herself admitted that the latter was a bit of a failure. “It probably tasted like an Alka-Seltzer tablet, which is basically what it was,” Rhodes said. “But she was constantly looking at the world and thinking, ‘Well, how could that be fixed? How could that be improved?’”

The Musician And The Starlet

This inquisitive, puzzle-solving mindset was soon set to the war-effort, although her most notable invention couldn’t have been completed without her friend and fellow intellectual, composer George Antheil. Antheil first drew Lamarr’s interest after he published an article about the possibility that a woman’s pituary gland could help to improve the size and shape of her breasts. Later in life, Lamarr was known for going overboard with the plastic surgery that she relied on to preserve her famous good looks, so it comes as no surprise that this study was the one that she initially began talking with Antheil about.

At some point, talk of breast enhancement veered off into a discussion of military weaponry, and slowly the idea of Lamarr and Antheil’s ‘frequency hopping’ technology came together. The two were uniquely suited to solving the problem. Lamarr knew quite a bit about military technology thanks to her first marriage to a military arms dealer, and perhaps a little more strangely, Antheil’s knowledge of music was just as useful to the pair.

The problem that they set out to solve was one of torpedos. The idea of radio-controlled torpedos was a novel one, but it was also inherently problematic. As Lamarr was quite aware, a transmission on a single frequency could easily be jammed or intercepted, and this was where Antheil’s music came in. As of 1941 when they were working on the technology, he had just written his Ballet Mechnique, in which 16 player pianos had to be perfectly in sync. The pair conceived of the idea of ‘frequency hopping’ in which the radio signals jumped around like the keys on a piano. Anyone trying to intercept the transmission would only be able to perceive a single blip on any one frequency — like a single note played on the piano.

The pair worked on the invention in their free time. At the time, Lamarr was starring in Ziegfield Girl alongside Judy Garland, while Antheil continued to be called upon to compose film scores. Their final iteration of the technology involved two motor driven rolls — like the ones used in Antheil’s pianos — with one in the transmitter and one in the torpedo. The device could hop across 88 frequencies, which also happens to be the number of keys on a piano.

Their patent was submitted in 1941 under the name “Secret Communication System”, with the New York Times reporting that Lamarr had invented a device that was crucial to national defence but also so confidential that the government would not allow them to publish any details. However, when they were awarded the patent and subsequently donated it to the U.S. Navy in order to help the war effort, it was not put to use — at least not against the Nazis as intended.

The Actress In Decline

Wanting to join the National Inventors council in support of the war effort, Lamarr was reportedly told that she could better help by using her fame to sell war bonds. That she did, with one story even claiming that she raised $7 million in one night by offering to kiss anyone who bought over $25,000 in war bonds.

Arguably her frequency hopping invention could have been a better contribution to the war effort, though at the time, it was not technologically feasible to put a large component like the piano rolls inside a torpedo. Some have also suggested that the U.S. Navy held an innate bias against technology that did not come from within the military itself. The patent that Lamarr and Antheil held was shelved and, by all accounts, that was Hedy Lamarr’s last foray into inventing.

In fact her own autobiography Ecstasy And Me didn’t even mention her inventions, instead reading as a rather campy and dramaticised account of her sex life. Lamarr later sued the publisher and the ghostwriter over the supposed autobiography, and other accounts of her life that did focus on Hedy as an inventor were written posthumously.

From there, Hedy continued her acting career as before, appearing in a new film every year all the way up to 1951. After this her career slowed down dramatically, and her last film was released in 1958. Despite how big a star she had been in earlier years, things only went downhill for Lamarr. In 1966 she was arrested for shoplifting in Los Angeles, the event coinciding with a failed attempt to return to film. Lamarr’s biography begins with this depressing revelation:

On a recent evening, sitting home alone suffering and brooding about my treatment at the police station because of an incident in a department store, and being replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor in a motion picture (imagine how that pleased the ego!) I figured out that I had made – and spent – some thirty million dollars. Yet earlier that day I had been unable to pay for a sandwich at Schwab’s drug store.

A Wireless Pioneer

Google’s tribute to Lamarr on what would have been her 101st birthday — November 9, 2015

While Lamarr’s life was taking a downward turn, her technology was finally being adopted by the military she had given it to more than ten years prior — although Lamarr and Antheil’s patent had expired in the intervening years. The frequency-hopping technology was finally utilised by the U.S. military in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Lamarr’s initial designs eventually led to spread-spectrum technology, which was implemented in an electronic, rather than mechanical way, as was proposed in the original patent. While frequency-hopping spread-spectrum technology was originally developed for military use, it made its way into the civilian sector in a big way, just like many other technologies intended for military use. The spread spectrum technology soon divorced itself from frequency-hopping. The latter was mainly used as a defence against the jamming of radio systems, while the former became the basis for much of the wireless technology we use today.

Sadly, Hedy Lamarr’s story never got its Hollywood ending. She later turned to plastic surgery to try and preserve her looks, though a number of botched operations resulted in Lamarr largely refusing to leave her house during the later years of her life. Her habit of only contacting people by phone — including even close friends and family members — was the running motif of a documentary made about her life in 2004, Calling Hedy Lamarr.

It was through this phone that she was contacted in 1998, to be notified that she had been chosen as that year’s recipient of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award. Her words upon hearing the news?

“It’s about time.”

These Are Your Numbers is a new Lifehacker series where we profile great minds that have made significant contributions to robotics and computing.

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