Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood actress and Torpedo jammer

By Jaime Seltzer

“I can excuse everything but boredom. Boring people don’t have to stay that way.” – Hedy Lamarr
“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” – Hedy Lamarr

Hedy was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kisler in Austria in 1914. From a very young age, Hedy wished to become an actress, studying piano, ballet, and acting over the course of her childhood, even attending an acting school headed by the famous director Max Reinhardt. Hedy dropped out to become Reinhardt’s production assistant, which might have been a clever move, since she quickly landed two small parts on the silver screen. Then, she landed a major role as the young wife of a much older man in a movie called Ecstasy. The film was quite racy, especially for the times, and it catapulted the young Hedy to stardom… or at least notoriety.

Hedy then met and married the wealthy Friedrich Mandl. Little did she know that he was an arms dealer, and that she would be expected to host the likes of Hitler and Mussolini over the course of their brief marriage. Friedrich liked to show her off, trailing Hedy along behind him for meetings on weapons systems and communication devices, but he was also infamously jealous, buying up every copy of Ecstasy he could find so that no other man would see his wife in a state of dishabille. He forbade Hedy from acting ever again.

Frequency-hopping eventually had its day, however, in inventions like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Ah, but little did he know that Hedy was a genius. This was a girl who’d never finished acting school, and yet she absorbed all that information about weapons systems and how to jam a signal and became more and more knowledgeable every day.

Hedy, alarmed by her husband’s increasingly obsessive and controlling behavior as well as the political situation, decided to make her escape. The story of what follows has been embellished and amended over the years, but it is certainly the case that Hedy’s escape involved a big party, Hedy’s maid, and a king’s ransom of jewels. An intriguing version has Hedy dressing in her maid’s clothing and draping her maid with her jewels, sending her maid to the party so that people who saw her at a distance believed it was Hedy, and using the clamor of the party to do a runner to France.

In 1937, she obtained divorce papers in Paris, and then moved to London. There, Hedy worked her magic again, charming Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios by turning down a lowball offer then pretending the pair were on the same boat trip due to utter chance. She used the time they were ‘stuck’ together to thoroughly beguile him, and was offered a much better deal. In 1938, she debuted under the name Hedy Lamarr for the first time, in Algiers.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr and her Women in Science card.

Over the course of her career, she starred in dozens of films, including a few real stinkers, but even at such a schedule, a mind like Hedy’s was easily bored. Most of her parts consisted of steamy looks and lounging sexily against various surfaces. She wanted more challenging roles, but it was very difficult to find such a thing for a woman, especially a stunning woman known for her sex appeal. So Hedy turned to tinkering and inventing, something she used to keep herself amused.

One of Hedy’s neighbors in Hollywood was George Antheil. Antheil was a pianist as well as an inventor, whose signature piece required the mechanical syncopation of sixteen pianos at once. Hedy originally met with him because she had heard about a book he had written on endocrinology, but soon the pair began to talk weapons and communication systems. They agreed that, no matter how well a torpedo had been designed, if the enemy could find the right frequency, they could jam the torpedo and send it off-course. Their design meant a torpedo could be guided by a plane flying high above it. The mechanism would be similar to the one used in Antheil’s syncopated pianos, shifting the signal back and forth between 88 frequencies – similar to a piano’s 88 keys. They obtained a patent for their design in 1942.

Frequency-hopping was not an entirely new notion; others, including Tesla, had worked on it. However, Lamarr’s and Antheil’s design was innovative and unique. Despite this, they had trouble pitching it to the Navy. “It’s like a piano,” they began, and the idea was pretty much dead on arrival – though the military would adopt similar technology fifteen years later.

Hedy was dispirited. When she applied to join the National Inventor’s Council, she was told she could do more for the war effort by using her beauty to raise money – so she did, selling a kiss for fifty-thousand dollars.

She made seven million for the war effort with that one, single event.

Her other inventions included an improved traffic stoplight and a fizzy tablet that would carbonate any beverage that even Hedy had to admit was a dismal failure: “it tastes like Alka Seltzer,” she said gloomily. Frequency-hopping eventually had its day, however, in inventions like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Today, Hedy’s contribution to the invention is recognized as an idea very ahead of its time.

‘Most Beautiful Woman’ by Day, Inventor by Night. (2011, November 2). In npr. Retrieved October 6, 2015 from http://www.npr.org/2011/11/27/142664182/most-beautiful-woman-by-day-inventor-by-night
Musil, S. (2014, November 9). Happy 100th Birthday, Hedy Lamarr, Movie Star Who Paved the Way for Wi-Fi. CNET. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from http://www.cnet.com/news/happy-100th-birthday-hedy-lamarr-movie-star-and-wi-fi-inventor/
Ouellette, J. (2012, January 9). Hop, Skip and a Jump: Remembering Hedy Lamarr. Scientific American – Blogs. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/hop-skip-and-a-jump-remembering-hedy-lamar/

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