How many inventors can lay claim to the title ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in Films?’ There’s just one who springs to mind, but such singularity is typical to Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), the Austro-Hungarian film star who invented the basis of Wifi and Bluetooth in her free time. Gorgeous, successful and obviously ingenious, Hedy is the kind of role model the world should know about.
Hedy’s life was fascinating before she ever began to dabble in inventing. The daughter of Jewish-born parents, Hedy was born in Vienna, capital of the now obsolete Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the late 20’s, she trained as an actress in Berlin under theatre great Max Reinhardt. A year after appearing as an extra in her first film, Geld auf der Straße, she caused worldwide sensation by starring in 1933 film Extase, in which she not only appeared naked in numerous scenes, but even mimicked an orgasm onscreen – the first time a female actor had done so in a theatrically-released film.
After the attention garnered by her acting, at 19, Hedy married Friedrich Mandl, an Austrian military arms manufacturer and one of the richest men in the country. Her husband turned out to be a controlling pro-Fascist, and Hedy found herself practically imprisoned in her own luxurious home. It was there, though, that she first became familiar with weapons technology, as she attended dinners with her husband where conversation focused around new developments in armaments and artillery.
Opinions differ as to how she left her suffocating and morally compromising marriage. Hedy claimed to have drugged her maid to escape disguised in her clothes, but other sources suggest she simply disappeared during a dinner party to which she had worn as much expensive jewellery as possible. In either case, by 1937 she had met Louis B. Mayer in Paris and signed a contract with MGM studios, thus launching her Hollywood career. She chose her film name out of reverence for silent film star, the late Barbara La Marr.
Hedy’s smouldering good looks and the scent of scandal that surrounded her guaranteed her success in the flourishing film industry. She starred in various famous films over a period of 20 years, starting with Algiers in 1938 and including Boom Town (1940) with Clark Gable as leading man, White Cargo (1942) and Samson and Delilah (1949), which was at the time of its release the third highest-grossing film made.
Being frequently typecast as little more than a glamorous sex symbol with relatively few acting challenges, Hedy sought distraction in inventing, despite having no formal training. Horrified by the course of World War 2, she turned her inventing attentions to the war effort. Hedy realised the importance of radio-guided torpedoes but lamented how easily they could be disarmed by jamming the radio signal controlling them. To get around this, she proposed the idea of frequency-hopping: sending messages via multiple different frequencies, changing rapidly and semi-randomly from one to another so that it would be harder to block. If the control centre was synced to change to the same frequencies as the torpedo, the message would still be received perfectly clearly.
“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” – Hedy Lamarr
Sharing her ideas with composer George Antheil, the pair used piano rolls as the foundations of the device that would actually allow this frequency-hopping, the earliest form of spread-spectrum communication. They patented their ‘Secret Communication System’ in 1942, and submitted the idea to the US Navy, who took little
notice of the civilians’ suggestion until 1962, when it was used during the Cuban missile crisis. Unfortunately, by this time, the patent had expired. The same patent is now recognised as the basis of the field of frequency-hopping, widely used not only in military communications but in all kinds of wireless transmission including Wifi, Bluetooth and CDMA (used in GPS and mobile phones).
Hedy and George’s impressive work finally began to find acknowledgement in 1997, with both of them receiving the American Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer award, prompting Hedy’s sardonic remark, ‘Well, it’s about time.’ A century after her birth, and 14 years after her death, Hedy was also posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.