20th century, Arts

Hedy Lamarr

How one of the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age became the grandmother of modern wireless technology

By Sarah Illingworth.


Having come to the attention of Hollywood producers after starring in the first non-pornographic movie to portray sexual intercourse and the female orgasm, Hedy Lamarr went on to co-invent an early form of spread spectrum broadcast communications technology which became the basis for modern wireless communication. Yes, I know what you’re thinking; it seems unlikely, doesn’t it. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that it took over half a century before Lamarr was publicly credited for her invention.

Hedy Lamarr

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1913, she changed her name to Hedy Lamarr on arrival in Hollywood and proceeded to make her name as “the most beautiful woman in films” through her portrayal of glamorous and seductive femmes fatale, such as her eponymous 1949 role in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah. However, as the daughter of Jewish parents, she was inspired by the war effort and motivated to ‘do her part’ for her adopted country, spending the first half of the 1940s developing and patenting the idea of “frequency hopping” for radio control of torpedoes. Lamarr’s idea involved broadcasting the signal which directed the torpedo over a series of radio frequencies, switching between these different frequencies at split-second intervals. A receiver which hopped frequencies concurrent with the transmitter would be able to translate the message, but to all others the message would be indecipherable. Frequency hopping would also evade attempts to jam the signal, which would affect only a small amount of the message and leave it relatively intact.

In 1940 Lamarr discussed this idea with her neighbour and friend, the avant-garde composer and concert pianist George Antheil, who proposed the mechanism by which it could be realised. Antheil suggested using a similar method of synchronisation to the one utilised in his Ballet Mechanique, a sixteen player-piano composition. This called for slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls to synchronize the frequency changes in transmitter and receiver, and made use of eighty-eight different frequencies, the same number of keys on a piano. In June 1941, having finalised their design with the help of an electrical engineering professor from the California Institute of Technology, they applied for a patent which was granted the following year, and sent a description to the newly created National Inventors Guild, set up by the president to receive and screen ideas bearing on national defence from private citizens.

While their “Secret Communication System” design was considered impossible to implement given the technological constraints of the time, it was later used (in 1957) by engineers at the Sylvania Electronic Systems Division, in Buffalo, New York, and subsequently installed on ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962, three years after the Lamarr-Antheil patent had expired. Although originally conceived for military communications, the concept of frequency hopping is now the basis for the spread spectrum radio systems used in products ranging from mobile phones to wireless networking systems. Yet as the implementation of this technology took place after the expiration of the patent, neither Lamarr nor Antheil ever profited from their invention.

Hedy Lamarr

Despite the impact of this invention, Lamarr’s role in its development was little known until 1997 when she was honoured by the Electronic Frontier Foundation at their sixth annual Pioneer Awards after a public campaign led by online community activist and previous recipient Dave Hughes. Why was this the case? The extended gap between conception and operational development no doubt played a role. However, the source of the idea may also have had a bearing. The task of matching up the image of a glamorous movie star with the intellect of a serious inventor may have proven too difficult for her contemporaries. For example, on trying to join the National Inventors Council, she was informed that she could better serve the war effort by using her celebrity to sell war bonds than attempting to contribute intellectually.

Lamarr herself was aware of the disparity, having been famously quoted as saying “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” The situation could not have been helped by the femme fatale roles Lamarr was famous for both on and off the screen: her part in the notoriously controversial film Ecstasy and her six marriages seem to take the lead in almost every profile written about her. Even specific references to her technological prowess seem to struggle to extricate themselves from this perceived identity: many authors claim her original motivation in approaching Antheil, a published author on glandular endocrinology, was for advice on how to enlarge her breasts. Perhaps this apparent incongruity between screen goddess and inventor underscores the need many biographers have in crediting her first husband, the arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl, with inspiring her invention, with one writer asserting that “his wife clearly learned things from him”. Although it is likely that her exposure to military technology through this association would have provided her with the conceptual framework to develop her invention, it seems unfair to dismiss her intellectual achievements so entirely in this way. After all, no one asks what Thomas Edison’s wife did for him.

Braun H.J. Advanced Weaponry of the stars. American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Spring 1997, Volume 12/Number 4
Lamarr H, Ecstasy and me. (New York, 1966)
Scholtz R, “The Origins of Spread-Spectrum Communications,” IEEE Transactions on Communications, Vol. 30, No. 5, May 1982, p. 822