Jacqueline Hochheiser, Corporate Communications
From the 1930s through the 1950s, Hedy Lamarr was best known for her extraordinary beauty and her starring roles in many Oscar winning Hollywood films. However, Lamarr was a double-sided coin with many talents. Her fame as an actress overshadowed the fact that she was an active inventor in her spare time. While in her trailer between takes, or at home when she was off duty, Lamarr had developed a fondness for “tinkering” with machines. She is better known for her engineering accomplishments today, than in her own era, but her role in pioneering the concept of frequency hopping during World War II remains a relatively obscure point among the more glamorous aspects of her career.
Lamarr was born in Vienna, Austria in 1914 under the name Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to wealthy Jewish parents. Her father was a successful bank manager, and her mother was a concert pianist. Lamarr was enrolled in ballet and piano lessons from the age of 5. Her love of performing arts blossomed and by the time she was 17, Lamarr landed her first role in a German film called Geld auf der Strase (“Money in the Street”). She continued to play minor roles in German and Czechoslovakian films until she starred in Ecstasy, a Czech romantic film that gained international publicity. Despite the popularity of the film, some critics debased Lamarr for its explicit content, and the reputation stuck.
Around this time, Lamarr had married her first husband, Fritz Mandl, whom she met after a live performance of the play “Sissy.” Lamarr was hesitant to indulge Mandl’s continuous attempts to shower her with flowers and praise, but in the end, he won her over with his charm. As it turned out, Mandl was an Austrian Fascist and owned a successful munitions manufacturing company, and it was not long before Lamarr realized his courtship had been a terrible disguise. Mandl was also an insecure and controlling husband, and would take her to business meetings in order or prevent her from pursuing her acting career. Unhappy and restrained, Lamarr fled from Mandl’s home dressed as one of her maids. Despite this, there was at least one good thing she took away from an unhappy marriage. The countless hours at meetings and dinners with military leaders such as Hitler and other members of the Nazi party, had left Lamarr with an arsenal of knowledge about weapons technology, which would later come in handy.
After fleeing from Fritz Mandl, Lamarr escaped to London where she happened upon MGM studios head, Louis B. Mayer. He was, of course, impressed with her role in Ecstasy as well as her stunning beauty. Lamarr was soon granted a contract and went on to star in many Hollywood classics such as Sampson & Delilah, Algiers and White Cargo. To escape the stigma that Ecstasy had created, she changed her name to Hedy Lamarr as a tribute to silent film actress Barbara LaMarr.
During her time living in the United States, Lamarr met influential figures such as John F. Kennedy and Howard Hughes who indulged her inclination toward inventing. Hughes, who owned an aviation company that manufactured racing planes offered to lend his scientists and engineers for Lamarr’s projects. She had already begun work on the frequency hopping project, which she called the “Secret Communication System,” and Hughes’ help was much appreciated.
Her idea was based on the knowledge she gained attending meetings with Mandl and the Nazi party, where she learned that torpedoes were programmed to home in on a target using radio control. The torpedoes were therefore often susceptible to jamming by enemy transmissions to throw the them off course. This knowledge led her to conceptualize the “secret communication system” years later when she arrived in Hollywood. To prevent the jamming of US military torpedoes, Lamarr proposed that the radio signal be transmitted over a variety of frequency bands in a pre-determined sequence. In this way, the transmitter and receiver were aware of the pattern, but it would be indiscernible to enemies.
To bring the concept to life, she employed the help of avant garde pianist and experimental composer George Antheil in 1940. While Lamarr provided the concept for the system, it was Antheil who gave it shape. The pair decided to model the frequency hopping spread spectrum after the musical construction of a melody. The frequency could hop between 88 different bands; the same as the number of keys on a piano.
With the concept finally completed, Lamarr and Antheil presented their idea to the National Inventors Council, and it was granted a patent in 1942. However, the military was initially skeptical about employing technology that came from outside military ranks. Instead, to help the war effort, Lamarr hosted a fund raiser using her Hollywood status as the means of getting publicity. It seemed to be her fate that society would see her merely as a pretty face rather than a brilliant inventor.
Lamarr’s technology sat dormant for nearly 20 years until the Navy decided to install it on ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it was not used as originally intended. Instead of preventing the jamming of torpedo guidance, it was used to encrypt secret messages among the allied forces that were indecipherable to the enemy.
Little did Lamarr know when she conceived the idea, that frequency hopping would become a fundamental technology in modern communications systems such as Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. These are all examples of wireless technologies that spread signals over rapidly changing frequencies. This technique is also known as Code Division Multiple Access, or CDMA, which converts data from cellphones into radio waves that transmit secure voice and text messages. CDMA grants access to the full spectrum of cellular bands in order to allow many users to connect at any given time. This system encodes user’s conversations into a pseudo-randomized digital sequence that can then be transmitted, abiding by Lamarr’s original idea of a pre-determined frequency sequence.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1977 that Lamarr was presented with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, as well as Invention Convention’s BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. She was finally inducted to the National Inventor’s Council Hall of Fame in 2014, long after her death in 2000. She also holds claim to a star in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, which comes as no surprise. Her legacy lives on as a famous and beautiful actress, but her achievements as an engineer have finally come to fruition after years of obscurity.