Hedy Lamarr. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1914 to wealthy cultured Jewish parents. First rose to prominence portraying the first non-pornographic film nude and simulated sex scenes at age eighteen in the movie Ecstasy, which was denounced by the Pope and banned in the US (for lewdness) and in Germany (for having a Jewish lead actress). Escaped to London – from both a disastrous marriage to a controlling fascist weapons manufacturer and from Nazi persecution – disguised as her own maid, with her jewelry sewn into the lining of her coat. Brought to the US by the MGM movie studio that subsequently promoted her as The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Direct inspiration for the physical appearances of both Disney’s version of Snow White and the original Cat Woman. Started her own movie production company a decade into a prolific Hollywood acting career when unsatisfied with the type cast roles she was being offered. Lived her last decades in seclusion communicating with the world and her children copiously but almost exclusively by phone, but only gave one on the record interview which was subsequently lost for over twenty years. But most importantly, Hedy Lamarr conceptualized the spread spectrum frequency hopping technology that underpins wireless communications to this day.
Hedy was a long time enthusiast of science and inventing, starting at age five when she disassembled and reassembled a music box. She once stated “I don’t have to work on ideas; they come naturally.” Many of her creations didn’t pan out, but Hedy’s knack for inventing combined with her passion for supporting the United States’ effort against the Nazi’s led to her most notable innovation. For this she teamed up with “The Bad Boy of Music” George Antheil, a well-known avant-garde pianist and as passionate a supporter of the US war effort as Hedy. She initially sought George out as he was a self styled expert in “female upper torso enhancement” but their conversations quickly turned to improving torpedo warfare. Radio guided torpedoes were being used by the US Navy for precise targeting at great distances but were vulnerable to radio frequency jamming by the enemy, which would set the torpedoes far off course.
With Hedy’s knowledge of munitions that she gained during her first marriage and George’s familiarity with player pianos, they teamed up to design a synchronized paired device dubbed the Secret Communications System. The SCS used frequent random radio frequency changes for the launching ship to communicate with the launched torpedo that prevented enemy jamming of the radio signal. Though not implemented at the time, the Navy started developing frequency hopping technology in the mid 1950’s and first incorporated it during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, right around the time Hedy’s patent on the technology expired. Frequency hopping aka Spread Spectrum technology is what later enabled all sorts of modern wireless communications systems. It is sadly predictable that Hedy was neither ever compensated for her contribution nor given any credit for it during the implementation period.
Hedy was told by the armed forces to not bother pursuing her inventions for them but rather she’d be more useful to the war effort raising money via helping with US War Bond sales. Though bitterly disappointed, she nevertheless was a fabulous success doing just that, raising what amounts to $343 million in today’s dollars boosting sales via public appearance and promotions.
Hedy’s role in frequency hopping (FH) first became known in 1990 via a Forbes magazine article, as FH was increasingly used as for cordless telephones, cell phones, secret government communications, and GPS systems, and later on Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other wireless applications. The US Navy, Lockheed Martin, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and Invention Convention all offered her awards and recognition over the next ten years. Other articles were published, and Hedy Lamarr became an underground hero within the burgeoning Silicon Valley tech community.
Hedy Lamarr died in Florida in 2000 and her ashes were scattered by her son in the Austrian forest. Her beloved city of Vienna gave her an honorary grave in its Central Cemetery in 2014. Since her passing, Hedy has been the subject of several plays, films and television episodes exploring her fascinating life, including a just announced Hedy Lamarr Showtime series set to star and be produced by Gal Gadot.
Diving into Hedy Lamarr’s Wikipedia page was the launching point for much of the information here. Her life was so fascinating and multifaceted with many incredible details that the real treasure is the page’s large references section; the perusal of which leads to many hours of reading down various the rabbit holes of her life – way more than covered here. The reader is highly encouraged to do the same.
Written by Steven Koster (he/him) from San Francisco, CA. This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.
Watch the trailer for the 2017 documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story below!
[Editors note: this season Drunk History featured Hedy Lamarr and her design of modern airplane wings and frequency hopping.]