Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid. ~ Hedy Lamarr
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna (November 1914), Lamarr’s father (banker, born in what is now Lviv, Ukraine) and mother (pianist, born in Budapest, Hungary) were both Jewish. She began acting in her teens, but her curiosity and interest in science reportedly began much earlier when she took “a musical clock apart at the age of five to understand how it works.”
Just before she turned 20, Lamarr married a man 30 years her senior, Friedrich Mandl, who was an arms merchant.
Mandl forbade her to continue acting. Instead, Lamarr presided over her husband’s lavish parties, attended by Hitler and Mussolini among others, and was often present at his business meetings. As a result, despite her lack of formal education, Lamarr acquired a great deal of knowledge about military technology, most notably guided torpedoes and the vulnerability of radio-controlled weapons to jamming and interference.
She escaped the marriage and fled to London via Paris. There she met Louis B. Mayer who signed her to a Hollywood contract as Hedy Lamarr.
In order to help the war effort, in-between filming movies, Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed a Secret Communication System “that constantly changed frequencies.” They envisioned a torpedo guidance system that used frequency hopping to protect radio-controlled torpedoes from jamming.
Lamarr contributed the idea of frequency hopping, while Antheil … devise[d] a means of synchronizing the rapidly changing radio frequencies envisioned by Lamarr.
They received their patent (number 2292 387) on 11 August 1942.
Lamarr and Antheil offered the patent to the U.S. Navy, which reportedly labeled it top-secret and also seized it because she was an ‘alien’.
According to her biographer, Richard Rhodes:
The Navy told her – you’ll be helping the War a lot more, little lady, if you get out and sell war bonds rather than sit around trying to invent new kinds of torpedoes. Leave that to the experts.
I don’t understand. They use me for selling bonds, then I am not an alien. And when I invent something for this country I am an alien?
When I think “Hedy Lamarr” my next thought is aviation tycoon Howard Hughes. According to the 2017 movie Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, not only were they a couple but they also shared “a love of invention.”
Hughes appreciated her mind, giving her complete access to his team of scientists to help her execute any of her inventions. Lamarr said that Hughes relied on her. She thought his airplanes were “too slow” so she designed a new wing shape for his planes, inspired by a book on fish and birds, to make them more aerodynamic.
The movie served to bring her life story to a new generation, complete with an inspirational twist (Rotten Tomatoes, 95/85). Her beauty had overshadowed her mind for most of her life, even though she had a mini-laboratory in her home and “a full chemistry set, including rows of test tubes, in her trailer while filming.”
During the mid-1950s, with the availability of lightweight transistors, the Navy shared Lamarr’s concept with a contractor assigned to create a sonobuoy, which could be dropped into the water from an airplane to detect submarines. That contractor and others over the years used Lamarr’s design as a springboard to bigger ideas. Although the patent belonging to Lamarr and Antheil did not expire until 1959, they never received compensation for use of their concept. In 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, all U.S. ships on a blockade line around Cuba were armed with torpedoes guided by a “frequency-hopping” system.
It is true that the US military would incorporate frequency-hopping technology in weapons. So does wifi and Bluetooth. But as Sir Isaac Newton noted, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Invention is sometimes parallel, sometimes sequential. For example, the American Physical Society points out:
Nikola Tesla alluded to frequency hopping in 1900 and 1903 patents. A similar patent for a “secrecy communications system” was granted in 1920, with additional patents granted in 1939 and 1940 to two German engineers. And evidence came to light in the 1980s that during World War II, the US Army Signal Corps worked on a communication system that used the spread spectrum concept as well.
And sometimes they need a catalyst:
If ideas are born of necessity, then the mother of secret communication has been war.
Lamarr died in Florida on 19 January 2000.