Lamarr was frequently quoted as saying, "Any girl
can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and
look stupid." She may have played that role on the
silver screen, but when it came to real life, Hedy proved
that brainpower was everything.
Before examining her important contribution, let's take
a quick look at her background.
First of all, Lamarr was only her stage name. She was actually
born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria back on
November 9 th, 1913.
As a teenager, Hedy attended acting school and quickly
made the transition into films. Like most movie stars, her
first few films were forgettable. Yet, the one that she
made at age seventeen made her an international star. A
very controversial star, that is. In the 1933, Czech film
Lamarr acted in a steamy love scene and appeared nude in
a 10-minute swimming sequence. That was definitely not the
thing to do. While mild by today's standards, her nudity
was considered morally unacceptable at the time, and the
film was banned in the United States for several years on
charges of indecency.
In 1933 (at age nineteen), her parents placed her into
an arranged marriage with an Austrian armament manufacturer
named Fritz Mandl. Mandl was the type of shady character
who would sell arms to anyone, even if it meant selling
them in violation of the Versailles Treaty.
Of course, to make these deals, Mandl had to entertain
all of his prospects. This included attending hundreds of
dinners with the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. And what
would a business dinner be like without Mandl's gorgeous
and equally famous wife dazzling these arms developers,
buyers, and manufacturers? But, as we will soon learn from
the outcome of this story, Hedy did not just entertain these
men. She listened carefully and learned a great deal.
To an outsider, Hedy had everything. She was married to
one of the wealthiest men in Europe. She lived in the famous
Salzburg castle where the Sound of Music was filmed. Add
to that all the clothes, jewellery, servants, and cars (one
1935 Mercedes owned by Mandl sold for over $200,000 several
years ago) one could ever want. It sure sounds like the
ideal life to me, but it was not.
Hedy, became more of a trophy than a wife to Mandl. He
was a control freak and would not even let her go swimming
without his supervision. After four years of marriage, Hedy
could take no more. She decided to escape.
In her first attempt to see if she could get away, Mandl
followed her. She was forced to sneak into a club that had
peep shows upstairs. Hedy paid off the attendant to keep
his mouth shut, but Mandl paid even more to get in. Hedy
was forced to hide in one of the rooms. While in there,
a male customer came in and assumed that she was the lady
he had hired. Without going into all of the details, Hedy
was forced into the position of making love to the man to
avoid her husband (she claimed that he was banging on the
During her real escape, Hedy supposedly drugged the maid
that was assigned to her, put on a maid's uniform, and walked
out the service entrance to freedom. Hedy eventually made
it to London where she appeared on the stage.
Hedy, hopped aboard the ship Normandie on a cruise for
Hollywood and stardom. She signed a contract with MGM's
Louis B. Mayer while on the boat, but he insisted on a name
change to avoid the controversy from Ecstasy. At this point,
MGM publicist Howard Strickland (according to a 1970 New
York Times article) approached Hedy and handed her a typewritten
list of last names and asked her to make a choice. You guessed
it - she chose Lamarr and the rest is Hollywood history.
Lamarr was immediately crowned the most beautiful woman
in the world by MGM and quickly became one of Hollywood's
Which leads us to the real focus of this story - her incredible
The other lead character in this story, George Antheil.
Antheil was internationally famous for his mechanistic avant-garde
musical style. When Antheil moved to Hollywood, he became
a film composer and a syndicated columnist for Esquire
magazine, for which he also contributed articles on romance
and endocrinology. He even published a book on the subject
the 1937 Every Man His Own Detective: A Study
of Glandular Endocrinology. What made him an expert
on this subject one will never know. In the summer of 1940,
Lamarr sought out Antheil. They were neighbours in Hollywood
and supposedly met at a party. The topic of conversation
changed to the impending war and torpedoes. Lamarr feared
Hitler (remember that she actually knew the guy) and began
to talk about an idea that she had for the radio control
of torpedoes. At the time, radio control sounded like a
great idea, but was not practical. All one had to do was
jam the particular frequency that the torpedo operated on
and the missile would fail to reach its target.
Lamarr was sitting at the piano with Antheil when that
flash of genius struck her. Antheil was hitting keys on
the piano and she would follow. It became clear that Antheil
was changing the keys that he was hitting, yet he was still
able to communicate to her. What if this could be translated
into radio control for a torpedo?
The next day they sat on his floor and figured the whole
scheme out. Lamarr realised that the frequency needed to
randomly change so that the enemy could not jam it. Any
attempt to knock out the signal controlling the missile
would only knock out a small blip of the communication stream
and have virtually no effect on its overall control. Hence,
the concept known as "frequency hopping" was born.
Of course, getting this grand scheme to actually work was
another story. Keep in mind that this was the time of large
vacuum tubes, not the miniaturised microprocessors that
rule our world today.
Antheil offered the solution to the problem. He had previously
composed his Ballet Mechanique, which was scored for sixteen
player pianos to perform at the same time. He suggested
using punched piano rolls to keep the radio transmitter
and torpedo receiver in synch. The transmitting signal was
designed to broadcast over a band of eighty-eight possible
frequencies - one for each key of the piano keyboard.
It took Lamarr and Antheil several months to work out the
exact details of their invention.
Then, in December of 1940, they sent a description of their
idea to the National Inventor's Council (set up by the government
to get ideas from the general public). Very few of the hundreds
of thousands of submissions that the Council ever received
actually caused any kind of excitement, but Lamarr and Antheil's
did. Under the direction of the Council's chairman (and
inventive bigwig over at General Motors) Charles Kettering,
the government helped to improve on the concept. Patent
2,292,387 for the "Secret Communication System"
was granted on August 11, 1942. (The patent is actually
under her married name at the time - Hedy Kiesler Markey.)
Unfortunately, other members of the council were less than
enthusiastic. There's no surprise here - just think about
the feasibility of placing a synchronised player piano mechanism
into a torpedo and having it operate properly. The Navy
declared the mechanism too cumbersome and shelved the idea.
The concept of frequency hopping was too far ahead of its
time. Lamarr and Antheil pursued their invention no further.
Yet, Lamarr was still able to help out in another way -
by selling war bonds. As part of one promotion, anyone that
purchased $25,000 worth of bonds could get a kiss from Lamarr.
She was actually able to sell $7 million worth in one night.
Not all great ideas are forgotten, however. In 1957, engineers
at the Sylvania Electronics Systems Division, located in
Buffalo, New York, used transistor electronics to accomplish
the goal that Lamarr and Antheil had set out to conquer
years before. Finally, in 1962 (three years after the Lamarr/Antheil
patent expired), the concept of frequency hopping was used
by the United States government in the communication systems
placed aboard ships sent out to blockade Cuba.
Today, the concept is not only used by the military (it
is used in the Milstar defence communications satellite
system), but has also become the technology behind the latest
in wireless Internet transmission and the newest cellular
phones. A quick search of the United States Patent Office
shows 1203 patents dealing with frequency shifting (now
called "spread spectrum") between 1995 and 1997.
How much influence the Lamarr-Antheil patent has had, if
any, on this technology will probably never be known.
Lamarr never earned a penny from this invention that so
many others have profited from. Instead, she slowly faded
from public view. She was married and divorced six times
between 1933 and 1965 to Fritz Mandl, Gene Markey, Sir John
Loder, Ted Stauffer, W. Howard Lee (who later married actress
Gene Tierney , and Lewis J. Boles. In 1966, Lamarr made
international headlines when she was arrested for shoplifting
in the May department store in Los Angeles, but was acquitted
by a 10-2 jury vote. The bad publicity from this incident
coupled with her controversial autobiography "Ecstasy
and Me" (purportedly ghost written and not approved
by Ms. Lamarr) brought an end to her movie career.
On March 12, 1997, Hedy Lamarr was finally honoured by
the Electronic Frontier Foundation for her great contribution
to society. Her son Anthony Loder accepted the award for
his mother and played an audio-tape for the audience - the
first time she had publicly spoken in over two decades.
Hedy Lamarr passed away on January 19, 2000 at her Casselberry
home in Florida. The bulk of her nearly three million dollar
estate was willed to her two children, but a portion was
left to her former personal secretary and to a friend. Most
surprisingly, however, was that she bequeathed $83,000 to
a local police officer who had befriended her in the last
years of her life. Lamarr asked that her ashes be scattered
over the Vienna Woods, near where she was born in Austria.
In one of those weird twist-of-fates, that same son Anthony
today owns a Los Angeles phone store in which half of the
phone systems that he sells are based on his mother's pioneering