Happy birthday today to Hedy Lamarr, a mathematician, Hollywood actress, a Jew, a principled opponent of Fascism and an advocate for female education and empowerment. She was the Co-Inventor of Spread Spectrum (frequency hopping) Technology – The basis of mobile phone technology and much more. In 1936 Hedy Lamarr became the first woman to grace the silver screen in a feature film wearing nothing but her birthday suit.
Five years later, at a Hollywood dinner party, she engaged in a passionate discussion with an avant-garde composer about protecting U.S. radio-guided torpedoes from enemy interference. She scrawled her phone number in lipstick on the windshield of his car so they could develop their ideas further. In 1942, unbeknownst to her adoring public, the unlikely duo secured a patent and gave it to the United States government for a “Secret Communications System” expressly constructed to assist in the defeat of Germany as she was staunchly opposed to the Nazis and wanted to help the war effort. The science presented in this patent serves as the basis for the technology we use today in cell phones, pagers, wireless Internet, defence satellites, and a plethora of other spread-spectrum devices.
Born in Vienna to a prosperous Jewish family, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, made a literal and metaphorical splash with her role in Ecstasy, a 1933 Gustav Machat´y film which featured close-ups of the nineteen-year-old’s face in the throes of orgasm (according to Hedy simulated with the aid of the director jabbing a safety pin in her behind!). The film was equally notorious for showing its youthful star swimming naked – this time most assuredly not simulated. Its Full frontal nudity at a time when, in the USA, the Hays Code was coming into force was bound to cause a stir and was the first nude scene in a mainstream movie. Perhaps the other amazing thing is that the “scandal” did not prevent her becoming a Hollywood star.
Although better known for her Silver Screen exploits, Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) also became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications She fled her country and husband Fritz Mandl (Austria’s leading arms manufacturer) in 1937. On the voyage to America she was signed to a $500 a week contract by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. She also took on the new last name “Lamarr,” meaning “the sea” (La Mar) but also in homage to a beautiful film star of the silent era, Barbara La Marr, who had died in 1926 from a drug overdose. The new Hedy Lamarr became one of the most successful actresses of the late ’30s and early ’40s. In a career that lasted into the late ’50s, Lamarr acted in more than 25 films with the likes of Clark Gable, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland. Lamarr enjoyed her biggest box-office success in 1949 with Samson & Delilah, her favourite and first colour film, produced by Cecil B. DeMille.
The international beauty icon, along with co-inventor George Anthiel, developed a “Secret Communications System” to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Lamarr, a passionate opponent of the Nazis, wanted to contribute more to the allied effort. As Mrs. Fritz Mandl, she had closely observed the planning and discussions that went into attempting to design remote-controlled torpedoes. These never went into production, because the radio-controlled guidance system was too susceptible to disruption. She got the idea of distributing the torpedo guidance signal over several frequencies, thus protecting it from enemy jamming. The only weak point was how to employ the synchronization of the signal’s transmitter and receiver.
In 1940, Lamarr met the American avant-garde composer George Antheil of “ballet mécanique” fame. She described her idea to him, and asked him to help her construct a device that would enable this signal to be synchronized. Antheil laid out a system based on 88 frequencies, corresponding to the number of keys on a piano, using perforated paper rolls which would turn in sync with one another, transmitting and receiving ever-changing frequencies, preventing interception and jamming. In December of 1940, the “frequency hopping” device developed by Lamarr and Antheil was submitted to the national inventors council, a semi-military inventors’ association. Lamarr and Antheil went on to file for a patent application for the “Secret Communication System,” June 10, 1941. The patent was granted by the United States patent office on august 11, 1942.
The enormous significance of their invention was not realized until decades later. It was first implemented on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and subsequently emerged in numerous military applications. But most importantly, the “spread spectrum” technology that Lamarr helped to invent would galvanize the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations such as Bluetooth possible.
As is the case with many of the famous women inventors, Lamarr received very little recognition of her innovative talent at the time, but recently she has been showered with praise for her groundbreaking invention. In 1997, she and George Anthiel were honoured with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. And later in the same year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed “The Oscar™ of Inventing.”
Proving she was much more than just another pretty face, Lamarr shattered stereotypes and earned a place among the 20th century’s most important women inventors. Hedy Lamarr was a phenomenally beautiful, intelligent, creative, witty, opinionated, passionate woman who believed strongly in cultivating inner strength. In addition to being a world famous movie star, wife and mother, she was a visionary inventor twenty years ahead of her time. Unfortunately, Hedy cannot be with us today for what would have been her 99th Birthday but she left the Hedy Lamarr Foundation behind to continue her good work.
Hedwig Eva Maria Lamarr