Hedy Lamarr

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World

Hedy Lamarr knew what was expected of her, and be coming the inventor of a secret communication system—that would usher in technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS—was not it. But no one really pegged her for a Hollywood film star, either. Lamarr was, after all, born in 1914 and raised half a world away, in Vienna, Austria. Even the precocious daughter of a banker with training in dancing and piano wouldn’t have a hope of landing so much success so far away. But Lamarr was never concerned about what other people believed was within
her grasp or out of it. She had her own restlessness to contend with. “I’ve never been satisfied,” said Lamarr. “I’ve no sooner done one thing than I am seething inside to do another thing.” Even amid divorce, war, and rejection, Lamarr could spot an opening that would bring her closer to advancement, no matter how obscured.

When Lamarr (née Hedwig Kiesler) was a child, she wandered the streets of Vienna with her father, listening to him explain the inner workings of complicated machines like streetcars and printing presses. He put a high value on independence: “[My father] made me understand that I must make my own decisions, mold my own character, think my own thoughts.” Not only did he provide her with marching orders to find her own way in the world; he also gave her the ammunition with which to carry them out. When Lamarr made the decision to leave school at sixteen and move to Berlin in order to pursue acting, she knew her father would not stop her.

Lamarr quickly made a name for herself on the stage and screen. But her ascent was not without snags. An early one was her marriage to a wealthy (and persistent) munitions dealer, Friedrich “Fritz” Mandl, who promptly forced her to quit her public-facing career as an actress for a new role at home: the trophy wife. Becoming an accessory used to thrill her husband’s powerful friends, however, did not suit her. “Any girl can be glamorous,” Lamarr said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Before long, Lamarr began plotting her escape. While she performed her act as a well-coiffed houseplant, she paid careful attention to the sensitive conversations her husband was having with his guests, who included diplomats, politicians, generals, and Benito Mussolini. Lamarr planned to leverage what intelligence she’d gathered against her controlling husband, should he refuse to allow her to quit the marriage. It never came to that. By 1937, after Mandl stormed off to one of his hunting lodges following a fight, Lamarr left for London with two large trunks, two small ones, three suitcases, and as much jewelry as she could carry. (Money was difficult to take out of the country.) Upon arriving she was able to arrange an introduction with the head of MGM Studios, Louis B. Mayer, the executive with the largest salary in the United States. They met at a small party. Unlit cigar in hand, he chided her for a nude appearance she’d made in an art film, telling her, “I don’t like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around a screen.” There it was again: what people think. He offered her a $125-a-week contract with MGM if she could find her own way to California. Lamarr turned him down. Salacious scene or not, Lamarr knew her value by the way Mayer inspected her—and it was more than he was offering.

But Lamarr also understood that Mayer was her best ticket to Hollywood, so when the MGM head and his wife hopped on a 1,028-foot ocean liner to the United States, Lamarr made sure she secured herself a spot on the ship, too. By the time the boat arrived stateside, Mayer had upped his offer: five hundred dollars a week for seven years if she agreed to English lessons and a name change. Her new moniker, decided over a Ping-Pong table while they traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, was marquee-ready. At age twenty-two, Hedwig Kiesler walked off the ship newly anointed as Hedy Lamarr. She was cast in her first Hollywood film seven months later.

As her career ramped up, Lamarr realized she wasn’t especially fond of Hollywood in the off hours—too many social occasions with “people who kid all the time,” she said. Lamarr preferred time to herself to tinker. Restless and still engaged in how the world worked, Lamarr transformed her drawing room into a workshop where she could fiddle with the many ideas that preoccupied her. There, she reimagined everything from tissue disposal to soda. For the latter, Lamarr convinced the high-flying manufacturing magnate Howard Hughes to loan her two chemists to help with experiments that would transform a bouillon cube into a savory cola. In Forbes magazine years later, Lamarr laughed about the effort: “It was a flop.”

By 1940, the headlines about World War II became more serious. Just one month apart, two British ocean liners carrying children to safer waters were torpedoed by German U-boats. In the second incident, seventy-seven children were killed by people who spoke Lamarr’s mother tongue. She was both shaken and incensed. She deeply wanted to find a way to help the Allied forces. Perhaps, she thought, all that information she’d gathered on German military tech might be of use in defending against the Germans.

Lamarr was so serious about getting the information to officials in her adopted country that, for a time, she considered quitting acting in order to lend her knowledge of Mandl’s dealings to the National Inventors Council, a group established during World War II as a sort of clearinghouse for ideas, submitted by the public, that might help the war effort. Instead, she decided to design something practical, a technology that the military desperately needed: a better way to guide torpedoes.

By 1942, US torpedoes had a whopping 60 percent fail rate. The weapons, which were improperly tested before deployment, were tossed out like bowling balls with spin but no aim. They would often dive too deep, burst too early, or do nothing at all. On other occasions, the torpedoes hit enemy ships, but without enough oomph to sink them. The weapons needed a better in-action guide to keep them on course. Lamarr started thinking about communication. If the soldiers ordering the torpedoes could keep tabs on them en route, the effect would be like installing bumper lanes in the vast, uncertain sea. Should the missile start to veer off, a human could guide it back from afar.

Engineers had been thinking about the communication problem for decades, but they hadn’t yet uncovered a solution that was enemy-proof. Although radio could offer a connection between sub and torpedo, the technology had an oversharing problem. Once a station was established, enemies could easily gum it up, jam it, or listen to the signal. The line was too public. What soldiers needed was a way to talk to their weapons without the enemy overhearing the instructions. An anti-jamming technique had been floated in 1898 by a US Navy engineer, but his solution—transmitting over higher and higher frequencies—wouldn’t have lasted long as opposing forces one-upped each other for higher and higher real estate. Lamarr, however, had another idea about how to secure a safe and clear connection. Since setting a single frequency left the communication vulnerable, she thought that a coordinated effort where both the sender and the receiver hopped frequencies in a pattern would confound anyone trying to listen in. The idea was similar to two pianos playing in unison.

Helping her to advance the idea was Lamarr’s friend George Antheil, a composer who put together movie scores to help support his more experimental work. Antheil was famous for a piece he produced in Paris in 1926 called Le Ballet Mécanique. Although humans ended up playing the parts, the work called for automated player pianos to perform in sync. Lamarr, also an accomplished pianist, sometimes played recreationally with Antheil. The duo would play a game sort of like chase across the keys. One person would start playing a tune, and the other would have to catch the song and play alongside. According to her son, this synchronized musical discourse gave the inventor her idea for outsmarting the Axis opponents. Antheil, who had already put quite a lot of thought into how to synchronize machines and who had, at one point, been a US munitions inspector, was the perfect partner to help Lamarr implement her idea.

Over countless hours on the phone, in the evenings, and spread out with matchsticks and other knickknacks on Lamarr’s living room rug, the pair nailed down the basics for their frequency-hopping invention. They applied for a patent in June 1941.

More concerned about the war than monetization, Lamarr and Antheil also sent their ambitious plans to Washington, DC, for review from the National Inventors Council. The positive feedback was swift. In a special to the New York Times, the council leaked its approval. The article began, “Hedy Lamarr, screen actress, was revealed today in a new role, that of an inventor. So vital is her discovery to national defense that government officials will not allow publication of its details.” The idea was classified “red hot” by the council’s engineer.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed the perception of the project. With the tragedy came many revelations about the sorry state of the United States’ existing torpedoes. At this point, the navy decided that they had neither the bandwidth nor the interest to test another system. Lamarr and Antheil secured the patent but lost out on a government contract. Lamarr’s patent was classified and filed away, its inventors’ chances for real-world deployment left in the dusty back pockets of a government cabinet.

It wasn’t until two decades later that the idea resurfaced, wrapped into a new frequency-hopping communication technology (later called spread-spectrum). Even then, the idea didn’t go public until 1976—thirty-five years after Lamarr patented it.

As it turned out, the technology had broader uses than just missiles. Lamarr’s idea paved the way for a myriad of technologies, including wireless cash registers, bar code readers, and home control systems, to name a few. While she had a long career as a celebrated actress, Lamarr finally got the full recognition she deserved when she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1997. Her response: “It’s about time.”

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