Hedy Lamarr is probably best remembered as the glamorous film star of Hollywood’s golden era. Less well-known, perhaps, is that she was an exceptionally gifted engineer and a pioneer in the field of wireless communication, co-inventing a device that helped to facilitate the development of GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology.
She was born Hedwig Eve Maria Kiesler in Austria in November 1914. Her father was a bank director with a passion for technology, her mother was a pianist, and Hedy grew up in a cultural Jewish quarter of Vienna. As a teenager she trained at a renowned Berlin theatre school after which she worked on the stage and appeared in several films, including the highly controversial 1933 film, Ecstasy.
Aged just 18, Hedy married the multi-millionaire munitions dealer, Fritz Mandl. He was an abusive and controlling husband and he kept her a virtual prisoner in their home. Depending on which version of events you read, Hedy either disguised herself as her own maid or slipped away from a party wearing all the jewellery she possessed in order the escape the marriage. Whatever the truth, she managed to break free from her husband and fled to Paris in 1937. There she met cinema mogul, Louis B. Mayer, who realised her tremendous potential as a screen actress. When Mayer returned to Hollywood, Hedy went with him.
Her first film, Algiers, was released in 1938 and shot her to stardom immediately. Revered for her beauty and sensuality, she remained one of Hollywood’s favourite screen sirens throughout the 1940s, starring in a large number of films.
Probably entirely unknown to her audience, however, were Hedy’s skills as a mathematician and her passion for invention. From an early age she had worked in her spare time on various projects and inventions, developing an improved traffic signal design and a tablet that dissolved in water to make a carbonated soft drink. Her passion was such that she set up a workshop in her home complete with a drafting table and shelves full of reference books.
It seems that one of the few people in Hollywood who knew of Hedy’s scientific ability was eccentric aviation tycoon, Howard Hughes. He frequently sought her guidance and once asked for her advice regarding the aerodynamics required to increase his aircrafts’ speed. When she presented him with her sketches of possible wing modifications, he called her a genius.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Hedy was keen to use her abilities to assist the fight against the Nazis. It is possible her determination was fuelled by hearing about the large-scale destruction of US submarines by German U-boats. Radio-controlled torpedoes were an important aspect of US naval strategy but the German forces were able to jam the radio signal being used and intercept the torpedoes. Hedy realised the radio signals would be impossible to trace if they could be sent over different and constantly changing frequencies and she embarked on a way to make this possible. At her request, she was joined in her endeavour by her friend, the musical composer, George Antheil.
During the summer of 1940 the pair began developing what is known as ‘frequency hopping’, a process which allows both radio receivers and transmitters to change frequency randomly. They designed a mechanism, very similar to the rolls used inside a pianola, which is able to synchronise changes between 88 separate frequencies. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code preventing a signal from being intercepted or interfered with by the enemy.
Hedy and George submitted their invention to the National Inventors Council in June 1941 and were granted a patent. However, the US military did not immediately recognise the huge potential of the device and it was never used for its intended purpose. Nevertheless, years later it was implemented on US naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and subsequently appeared in various military applications. More significantly, however, the ‘spread spectrum technology’ Hedy helped to develop had a tremendous influence on the digital communications boom and provided the technical foundations for fax machines, mobile phones and other wireless technology.
In 1997 Hedy and George were honoured with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and Hedy became the first woman to ever receive the prestigious BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, the highest accolade given to inventors.
During the later years of her life Hedy grew increasingly reclusive and rarely appeared in public. She retired to live in Florida and died at her home there in January 2000 at the age of 85. In 2014 she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame and recently her invention has been the subject of books, articles and documentaries. Known throughout her life only for her beauty, she is finally gaining the recognition she deserves for her genius.