Just before the holidays, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richard Rhodes — who wrote the definitive history of the Manhattan Project with The Making of the Atomic Bomb — published a new biography of film star Hedy Lamar: Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr. Why? There’s been a resurgence of public interest in this forgotten star ever since her wartime patents came to light. Lamar published her own memoir, Ecstasy and Me, in 1967, and two other biographies appeared in 2010, so Rhodes is in very good company.
Fans of classic film know Hedy Lamarr for her memorable silver screen performances. But this lovely actress also made a small contribution to wartime technology with her co-invention of an early form of spread spectrum communication technology, or frequency hopping, in which a noise-like signal is transmitted on a much-larger bandwidth than the frequency of the original information. In the 1930s, Europe (and much of the Western world) was on the brink of a second world war and military leaders from many different nations were scrambling to find advanced weapons technologies to gain an edge in the escalating hostilities. One place nobody thought to look was Hollywood, which might explain why an obscure patent filed in 1942 failed to garner much notice.
Born in November 1914 as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, Lamarr came from “Jewish haute bourgeoisie” stock (Wikipedia’s words, not mine). Her father was a bank director and her mother was a Hungarian pianist, who made sure Hedy studied ballet and piano as a child. As a teen, the young Hedy attended a famed acting school in Berlin headed by director Max Reinhardt.
She dropped out of school to be Reinhardt’s production assistant and had bit parts in two films before starring as a love-starved young wife married to a much older man in a Czech film called Ecstasy. (You can view clips here, but must verify that you’re over 18, due to mild nudity.)
Not only did Lamarr appeared nude on screen, frolicking through the woods and crouching behind convenient bushes, but there were numerous close-up shots of her (ahem) simulating orgasm in quite explicit sex scenes. (She later recalled that far from being sexually transported, her expressions were in response to the director poking her in the derriere with a pin to elicit them.)
Even back then, all it took was a sex tape to launch a stunning young woman into a life of celebrity. Lamarr leveraged her beauty and sudden notoriety into what seemed like an advantageous marriage just before she turned 20, to a man 30 years her senior.
Her (first) husband was Friedrich Mandl, an arms merchant based in Vienna who sold munitions and manufactured military aircraft. Mandl forbade her to continue acting — in fact, he tried to buy up all the prints of Ecstasy, feeling that the expression on his wife’s face during those love scenes was indecent.
Lamarr initially took the restrictions on her freedom in stride: she dutifully presided over her husband’s lavish parties, attended by Hitler and Mussolini among others, and was often present at his business meetings. None of the men in the room gave a second thought to the presence of Mandl’s beautiful young wife — how could she possibly follow their manly discussions about wartime strategy and weapons? As a result, despite her lack of formal education, she acquired a great deal of knowledge about military technology, most notably guided torpedoes and the vulnerability of radio-controlled weapons to jamming and interference.
Disillusioned with married life –- especially her husband’s increasingly controlling behavior and shady business dealings with Nazi industrialists –- Lamarr disguised herself as one of her maids and escaped first to Paris in 1937, where she obtained a divorce from Mandl, and then moved to London. She would marry five more times before giving up on the institution. (One colorful version of her legendary escape has her attending a party with Mandl decked out in all her expensive jewelry, then drugging him with the help of her maid before fleeing.)
After meeting Louis B. Mayer in London, he signed her to MGM as Hedy Lamarr. Her debut was in the 1938 film Algiers. She went on to play many more roles — including a cringe-inducing turn as a native femme fatale in White Cargo, announcing ominously to each victim, “I am Tondelayo. I will come and make tiffin for you.” She also co-starred with Lana Turner and Judy Garland in the musical extravaganza Ziegfield Girl, and showed an unexpected flair for comedy opposite Clark Gable in Comrade X, in which she played a Russian streetcar conductor named Theodore.
In a town filled with stunning women, Lamarr stood out. Actor George Sanders once said that she was “so beautiful that everybody would stop talking when she came into a room.” But Lamarr was more than just a pretty face: she had a natural mathematical ability and lifelong love of tinkering with inventions. One of those ideas bore fruit when she met her Hollywood neighbor, avant garde composer George Antheil, in the summer of 1940.
Born in New Jersey to Prussian emigrants, Antheil studied music in Philadelphia and toured Europe as a concert pianist, before turning his hand to composing. His signature piece was called “Ballet Meanique,” a complicated score originally written for Fernand Leger’s 1924 abstract film of the same name. It called for mechanically synchronizing sixteen player pianos, as well as xylophones and percussion. He returned to the US in 1933 to compose for film, and also became a syndicated romance advice columnist, writer for Esquire, and author of a book entitled, Every Man His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Endocrinology.
Legend has it that Lamarr approached him for endocrinological advice on increasing her breast size, but the two soon began chatting about weapons, particularly radio controlled torpedoes and how to protect them from jamming or interference. She realized that “we’re talking and changing frequencies” all the time, and that a constantly changing frequency is much harder to jam.
This became the basis for their design for a torpedo guidance system. Lamarr contributed the idea of frequency hopping, while Antheil drew on his experience with “Ballet Meanique” to devise a means of synchronizing the rapidly changing radio frequencies envisioned by Lamarr.
Their joint invention used a mechanism similar to piano player rolls to synchronize the changes between the 88 frequencies –- not coincidentally, this is also the standard number of piano keys -– and called for a high-altitude observation plane to steer a radio-controlled torpedo from above. They submitted their patent on June 10, 1941, and the patent was granted on August 11, 1942.
This was not an entirely new concept. Nikola Tesla alluded to frequency hopping in 1900 and 1903 patents, filed after he demonstrated the first radio-controlled submersible boat in 1898. Realizing he needed to shield the radio signals from interference, he devised two different techniques that relied on altering the carrier frequency to eliminate interference.
A similar patent for a “secrecy communications system” was granted in 1920, with additional patents granted in 1939 and 1940 to two German engineers, who also held German patents for their work. And evidence came to light in the 1980s that during World War II, the US Army Signal Corps worked on a communication system dubbed SIGSALY that used the spread spectrum concept as well.
Lamarr and Antheil had less success convincing others their idea was feasible. Examiners at the National Inventor’s Council questioned the robustness and accuracy of the internal clockwork mechanism responsible for moving the perforated tape through the system, while the U.S. Navy felt the clockwork mechanism was too bulky and unreliable to use with a torpedo, although Antheil argued it should be possible to miniaturize it to fit inside a watch. As Antheil later recalled:
In our patent Hedy and I attempted to better elucidate our mechanism by explaining that certain parts of it worked like the fundamental mechanism of a player piano. Here, undoubted, we made our mistake. The reverend and brass-headed gentlemen in Washington who examined our invention read no further than the words “player piano.” “My god,” I can see them saying, “We shall put a player piano in a torpedo.”
In fairness to the US Navy, that wasn’t their only objection; frequency hopping was a bit too far ahead of its time — technology had to catch up. It wasn’t until 1957 that engineers at Sylvania Electronic Systems Division adopted the concept, using the recently invented transistor for an electronic system rather than the original clockwork mechanism. The Sylvania system was installed on ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962, three years after Lamarr’s and Antheil’s patent had expired, and its primary use was for secure military communications rather than remote control of torpedos. The same basic concept is still used in US defense communication satellites — and in modern cell phone technology.
Antheil died in 1959, no doubt still bitter that his work hadn’t been taken seriously by the military. He fared better than Lamarr, who wanted to join the National Inventor’s Council and was told she could be most useful to the war effort by exploiting her celebrity status to raise money — which she did, once selling kisses for $50K a pop and raising a whopping $7 million at a single event. Lamarr went on to make more than 20 more films, most famously Cecil B. de Mille’s 1949 Samson and Delilah. She played the title role of the Biblical temptress, of course.
But somehow, true greatness in Hollywood eluded her — partly due to the dearth of meaty roles for women in general, but also because casting agents couldn’t see past her looks to find her substance. (Her fellow bombshell actress Jayne Mansfield had a similar fate. Mansfield purportedly had an IQ of 163 — or 149, depending on which source you believe — spoke five languages, and was a classically trained pianist and violinist, but admitted her public didn’t care about her brains. “They’re more interested in 40-21-35,” she said.)
Lamarr retired from film completely in 1957, settling in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where she painted and dabbled in the odd invention — like a pocket on the side of a Kleenex box in which one could deposit used tissues. It was a quiet existence, apart from the occasional lawsuit, marriage or divorce, or shoplifting scandal (she was arrested in 1966, and again in 1991 at the age of 78, although the charges were later dropped).
Lamarr has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in honor of her film career, but she took particular satisfaction in being awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Award in 1998, more than 50 years after she and Antheil received their patent. “It’s about time,” she reportedly said upon hearing the news. Her son accepted the award on her behalf.
Lamarr died on January 19, 2000, in her Florida home. Despite her wartime contributions, she will likely always be remembered more for her spectacular beauty than for her technological contributions, which are usually treated as an intriguing footnote to a life that was not exactly devoid of drama. “My face has been my misfortune,” Lamarr once observed, describing it as “a mask I cannot remove. I must live with it. I curse it.”
[Adapted from the archived blog; originally posted May 2011.]