Hedy Lamarr: The actress that made (frequency hopping) waves

On the occasion of the Women and Girls in Science Day, Marie Poirot highlights the contributions of inventor and Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr to modern technology.

“The unknown was always so attractive to me”. This quote is a good way to describe inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr. World-famous for her movie career and outstanding beauty, her love for science and discoveries and her contributions to modern technology are less known, despite the fact that she was a pioneer in communication technologies, creating a spread spectrum system that would later lead to technologies such as the WiFi or the GPS.

Hedy Lamarr in The Heavenly Body 1944. Image credit: Employee(s) of MGM, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1914 in Austria, Hedwig Kiesler already displayed a curious mind and a rare curiosity at an early age. However, it was only her beauty that gathered attention, and she started a career in acting at the age of 17 as Hedy Kiesler. In 1934, she emigrated to the United States to flee an unhappy marriage with a controlling husband, arms merchant Fritz Mandl, who had ties with fascist regimes. In her new country, she changed her name to “Lamarr”, considered more appropriate for starring in movies and started her Hollywood career. However, Hedy Lamarr did not forget about her passion for inventions. She had an invention table in her house and was also given a small invention set by Howard Hughes (a businessman and pilot she dated for a time) to use in her trailer. She would continue working on her experiments and inventions on movie sets between takes.

When World War II started, Hedy Lamarr met experimental composer and pianist George Antheil. Both shared an inventive and creative mind and were driven by the need to help in the war. Antheil recalls about her: “We began talking about the war, which, in the late summer of 1940, was looking most extremely black. Hedy said that she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state”. Besides, Lamarr had gained an extensive knowledge of weapons during her marriage with Fritz Mandl.  

Hedy said that she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state”.

Together, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil worked on improving the Allies torpedo system. The teleguided torpedoes sent to drown German boats weren’t very effective, as the guidance signal was easy to detect by the enemy target and jammed frequently. Lamarr had an idea: if the radio frequency kept changing, the Germans wouldn’t be able to detect it anymore. The duo set on creating a communication system that could jump frequencies while the receiver remained synchronised with the transmitter. Antheil’s previous research was useful for their project: the composer had tried to invent a system to play his piece “le ballet mécanique”, in which 16 pianos were supposed to play simultaneously. They invented a system using two rolls of identical pierced paper tape similar to those used for a player piano, one for the transmitter, one for the receiver. The tape would code for the frequency-hopping, and as the two tapes were identical, the frequency would remain synchronised between the transmitter and the torpedo. A clockwork mechanism could be used to make sure both started simultaneously. This type of technology was called “spread spectrum technology” and is still used in modern communication systems.

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s patent for a “Secret Communication System”. Credit: CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

When their system was finalised, it was able to jump 88 radio frequencies randomly. Even if the enemy detected one of them by chance, they wouldn’t be able to follow through as soon as the frequency changed, making the signal impossible to jam. Lamarr and Antheil were granted a patent in 1942 for their invention, but it was overlooked: the army did not trust an invention from glamourous actress Hedy Lamarr. According to some experts, women in the Hollywood era could only be seen as one of two things: seductive or virtuous. They could never be seen as both, nor as something more than an object of desire or admiration. Beautiful Hedy Lamarr suffered from this binary vision, as she was placed in the first category by most. She wasn’t given the chance to disclose her brilliant mind.

“Women in the Hollywood era could only be seen as one of two things: seductive or virtuous”.

And so, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil went on their way. She participated in the war effort by raising funds for the army and continued with her acting career until she retired. The story could have ended there and her work forgotten. However, over 50 years after obtaining her patent, Hedy Lamarr finally gained the recognition she deserved, 3 years before her death. Indeed, in 1997, a new product was conquering the world: the mobile phone. The device was using a technology called Code Division Multiple Access or CDMA, a spread spectrum technology allowing wireless communication while avoiding interferences. This technology was a modern, more elaborated approach to Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency hopping waves technology.

Hedy Lamarr was awarded the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation jointly with George Antheil, and in 2014, 14 years after her death, she entered the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In Austria, the Inventor’s Day is celebrated each year on her birthday on November 9th. Upon hearing she was to receive the Pioneer Award, Hedy Lamarr would have said: “It’s about time”.

Written by Marie Poirot and edited by Samantha Cargill

Marie’s comments: I have been fascinated with the life of Hedy Lamarr ever since I first read about her. For a long time, she was only seen as a glamorous actress from the Hollywood Golden Era, while her inventive mind was overlooked. Writing this article, I learned a lot about this aspect of her personality; how she was always creating and tinkering, from trying to find solutions to everyday problems to creating new aeroplane designs. Besides, on this Women and Girls day in Science, her life teaches us that women are not limited to being just one thing. She is proof you can be a brilliant female scientist and a successful actress at the same time!

Marie Poirot is a former Science Communication and Public Engagement student with a background in cell and molecular biology. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marie-poirot-07089a146

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