Hollywood’s golden era saw many beautiful women, but few were as stunning as the raven-haired Hedy Lamarr, who escaped Nazi-controlled Europe, starred in blockbuster films and went on to create “spread spectrum” technology, a key innovation that laid the groundwork for mobile devices today. She was the sex symbol of her time, but her lasting acclaim may come from her incredible mind, rather than her beautiful looks. The screen siren, known for remarking that “any girl can be glamorous — all she has to do is stand still and look stupid,” was far from stupid.
A young woman, who first came to Americans’ attention after swimming naked in the sexy foreign film “Ecstasy,” would team with a musician to develop a technology that would prove vital in developing smartphones and mobile communication — a device that would keep the Nazis from jamming communications on U.S. submarines. The 1941 invention wasn’t used in the war — its significance wasn’t realized until decades later. But every time you pick up your cell phone and make a call, send a fax, or use just about any device that uses wireless communications, you can thank a beautiful actress and a musician for being more than just celebrities — but brilliant patriots who were far ahead of their time.
Beauty and the Beasts
Lamarr was born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria in 1913, the only child of Jewish parents Gertrud, a pianist, and Emil, a successful bank director. At 19, she married Friedrich Mandl, a man 13 years older than her. He was a munitions manufacturer and reportedly the third-wealthiest man in Austria. In her autobiography “Ecstasy and Me,” she wrote that her first husband was an extremely controlling man who kept her from pursuing her acting career.
Mandl, who was half-Jewish, surrounded himself with the Nazi rulers and had close social and business ties to the governments of Italy and Germany, even selling weapons to Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He threw lavish parties, with Hitler and Mussolini among those attending, and the industrialist brought her along to business meetings he had with scientists and others in military technology. During this time, the young “trophy wife” paid close attention and soon discovered she had a talent for applied science.
Around the same time, her infamous first movie, Ecstasy, came out, infuriating her husband who tried, in vain, to buy every copy. Meanwhile, she was discovering that staying with him was becoming intolerable, and made plans for her escape. The accounts vary about how she got away — some say she disguised herself as a maid and escaped during a party, while others claim she talked him into letting her to wear all her jewels to a party, and then fled as a very wealthy young woman.
In any event, Lamarr made her way to London, where movie mogul Louis B. Mayer hired her, changed her name, and brought her to America, where she made her film debut in 1938. The actress became famous, usually for her roles as a glamorous, foreign agent of some sort. But the war was still brewing back in Europe, and even though she was becoming an international movie star, she wanted to help her new country defeat the Nazis slaughtering Jewish people back home in Europe.
A Brilliant Mind at Work
While in Hollywood, Lamarr met up with George Antheil, dubbed “the bad boy of music” because of his experimentation with automated control of musical instruments, including creating a musical score that involved multiple player pianos playing at the same time. Antheil enjoyed a successful career in creating modern music. But in Germany during the rise of Hitler, he found that the Nazi rulers did not appreciate his style, and returned to America. Antheil, a brilliant technical mind, became a movie score composer, and after he had a chance conversation with her, they began working on a device they believed would stop the Nazi war effort.
The device they created used radio frequencies to “hop” at irregular periods. While the message was sent, both the transmitter and receiver would be synchronized, simultaneously change frequencies according to a special code. That meant messages could be sent without being detected, deciphered or jammed. She used her knowledge of torpedo control gleaned while accompanying her first husband to meetings. He added his music experience, applying the multiple player piano technique in his score in the avant-garde classic film “Ballet Mecanique” to control the “spread spectrum” sequences.
Spread spectrum techniques use an electrical, electromagnetic or acoustic signal to prevent jamming by “spreading out” a message across a wide frequency range. That way, if a part of the signal is knocked out, most of the message remains intact.
In 1941, Lamarr and Antheil received a patent for their revolutionary device, even though it wasn’t used until years later. The military adopted the technology during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the ’60s, but since the patent had expired three years earlier, she neither received royalties, nor recognition for the achievement. Neither could have foreseen mobile technology, much less imagine the role spread spectrum would play, but their technology is vital to today’s communications. Spread spectrum resists natural interference, noise and jamming, so it’s ideal for cellular phones and devices that demand secure radio frequency communication.
Accolades — But Too Little Too Late
Had Lamarr been a modern-day inventor, people would have given credit to her incredible mind, and encouraged her to invent even more devices. But she received little recognition, even downplaying her role in interviews after the patent filings. But time caught up. In 1997, they received the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, Pioneer Award. Later that same year, she was named the first female recipient of the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prominent lifetime achievement award for inventors, nicknamed the “Oscar of Inventing.”
With the Bulbie, she joined a cast of stars, including Paul MacCready, father of human-powered flight, Stanley Mason, America’s master inventor to Fortune 500 companies, Donald Banner, former commissioner of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and Bernie Cousino, inventor of the loop-to-loop 8-track tape. By this time though, she was living quietly in Florida, so one of her sons accepted the award on her behalf.
She died in 2000, just a few years later.
Ironically, in the ’40s, Lamarr wanted recognition for her mind. She wanted to take a position in the first “National Inventors Council” for the U.S. government, but was told she would make a bigger contribution through acting. She used her beauty to raise millions in war bonds, but deep down, she wanted to use her mind, rather than looks, to help fight the Nazis.
“The contrast in the public mind, of a woman, a beautiful one at that… was as far from technological development as one could imagine,” wrote David R. Hughes, who nominated Lamarr for the Electronic Freedom Foundation Award in 1996, which she would go on to win, adding that the story was “one which can also capture the public imagination, and further the cause of technological ‘pioneering’ by women’.”
A Sad Later Life
Lamarr stayed in the movies and enjoyed fame through the ’40s, but soon found — like other beautiful women in Hollywood — that physical beauty fades and the movie roles stop coming. Eventually, after enjoying her biggest movie role as Delilah in the Cecil B. DeMille epic “Samson and Delilah,” her career declined. She married five times and by 1974, her name was a joke punch line used in the Mel Brooks satire “Blazing Saddles.” She sued for the use of her name, and eventually settled out of court and retreated from public life.
After 1950, she appeared only in the occasional role, and by the ’60s, she was having financial difficulties. In 1966, police arrested her for shoplifting, and again in 1999. The court dropped the charges both times, but the events left another mark of humiliation.
Of course, even had her scientific contributions been recognized earlier, her life may have ended the same. But her life can certainly serve as a cautionary tale for women today as well as in years past — beauty fades, but intellect lasts a lifetime. In the case of Lamarr, nobody will know what other inventions she could have discovered, due to a cultural demand that women stay ornamental. However, her invention will live on, as mobile technology becomes an ever-important part of people’s lives. ♦
Categories: Features | Tech Pioneers