Hedy Lamarr, Inventor
“Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” So said Hedy Lamarr. No one ever heeded those words more successfully than Hedy herself. She hid a brilliant mind to be regarded as the most glamorous woman in Hollywood.
“All creative people want to do the unexpected,” she said. And she did. She became the first actress to bare her breasts in a major motion picture. Her ten-minute nude scene got her 1933 picture “Ecstasy” banned in the United States. Today that scene would earn her no more than a PG-13 rating.
She suffered through an arranged marriage to Fritz Mandl, an Austrian munitions manufacturer. He flaunted his beautiful young actress in dealing with his Nazi and Fascist clients. Little did Mandl know, she was more than just decoration there. She absorbed the state of the art in munition technology while looking glamorous.
In 1937, she slipped out of a dinner party for Nazi weapons buyers and fled Mandl across Europe and beyond. On a boat to America, she met Louis Mayer of MGM. He hired the glamorous actress on the spot. Her name was still tainted by her banned film, so Mayer renamed her Hedy Lamarr, and made her a star. Soon, she was widely regarded as the most glamorous woman in the world at the time.
That image required she keep her great mind well hidden. With zero technical education, she would make one of the important inventions of the twentieth century. She had assimilated a lot from her exposure to her first husband’s munitions manufacturing business. She was fascinated by control systems. Torpedo control was a vexing problem of the day. Edison advocated guidance by wire. Unwinding up to ten miles of wire was fraught with difficulties: any break and the torpedo was lost. Siemens advocated radio control, but that was too easy to jam. Hedy Lamarr conceived of synchronized frequency hopping to foil jamming.
She designed her control system with her neighbor George Antheil. Antheil was an avant-garde musician who had automated musical arrangements including player pianos and other instruments. Their control system used paper rolls resembling player piano scrolls to coordinate frequency hopping between transmitter and receiver. Lamarr and Antheil presented their patented invention to the U. S. Navy. They accepted it, classified it, and dismissed it as “too cumbersome.”
Transistorized versions of her frequency hopping system were first produced in 1957. They became the backbone of U. S. military communications. Declassification and further miniaturization led to commercial systems. Lamarr’s frequency hopping concept is among the keys to cell phone technology. Despite the contributions of their invention, neither Lamarr nor Antheil ever received a cent for their discovery.
The next time someone asks you what historical figure you would like to have dinner with, think Hedy Lamarr. A fascinating woman: one with the face to launch a thousand ships, and the brain to sink them.