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Industry News

A Starlet's Secret Life as Inventor

The little-known contributions of actress Hedy Lamarr to the advancement of military communications

February 1, 1999
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A Starlet's Secret Life as Inventor

Hedy Lamarr is being showered with honors for advancements in military communications based on her anti-jamming patent from the '40s.

Peter Y. Hong
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Editor's Note:

The following article by Peter Y. Hong is reprinted with permission from the Los Angeles Times, copyright 1998. (It originally appeared in the newspaper's August 30, 1997 issue.) The Times was not able to provide us with the photograph of Ms. Lamarr that it used, so I have substituted the cover of LIFE magazine from June 1, 1942 both for those of you who are too young to remember her and those of us who fondly do.

This article was brought to my attention by my good friend and colleague Chuck Swift of C.W. Swift and Associates. Chuck also provided the issue of LIFE, and I am grateful for his help. Everyone in our office found the story to be fascinating, I hope you will too.

Harlan Howe, Jr.

Hedy Lamarr, the star of such films as "The Heavenly Body" and "Dishonored Lady," secured her place in history more than 60 years ago as the first woman to romp naked across the screen in a feature film.

Now 82, she is again raising eyebrows for revolutionary work of a very different sort: her little-known contributions to technology that are being used today in military communications.

In 1940, Lamarr, who had learned about weaponry through her marriage to an arms manufacturer, joined with the avant-garde composer George Antheil to invent an anti-jamming device for radio-controlled torpedoes.

The Navy ignored the advice. But years later, after the patent expired, the Lamarr-Antheil idea was independently advanced by other scientists and helped form the basis for the anti-jamming technology now used in the U.S. military's $25-billion Milstar defense communications satellite system.

Lamarr's role in "frequency hopping," overlooked for decades, is now as hot with technology enthusiasts as pinups of Lamarr were with World War II servicemen.

Schematic drawings of her patent appear on Internet Web sites. The actress, who never won an Oscar, is being showered with awards from inventors groups. Her most recent tribute will be accepted by her son Sunday at the Invention Convention in Pasadena.

Lamarr, who lives outside Orlando, Fla., is reluctant to speak to reporters, according to her son, Anthony Loder, who declined to forward a request for an interview.

The inventors who selected Lamarr for the annual Pasadena showcase's "Bulbie" award were surprised when they read about her work in technical publications.

"My mouth dropped wide open," said Showcase Chairman Stephen P. Gnass.

The tale begins with the plight of a young woman trapped by an older, domineering husband.

As a teenage actress in Vienna, Hedy Kiesler married a millionaire arms maker named Fritz Mandl. Mandl was obsessed with his young bride, keeping her constantly at his side.

So at an age when she might have entered a university, Hedy was instead listening in on her husband's discussions of weapons systems with his engineers, soaking up the latest information on munitions, she wrote in her autobiography.

Although Mandl kept Hedy near him as a trophy wife, her mind was sharp - her parents had hired private tutors throughout her childhood and put her in elite private schools in Vienna - and she retained much of what she heard.

Hedy soon lost interest in her husband, and was disturbed by his arms sales to Nazis. Afraid of losing his wife, Mandl employed the household servants as guards, placing Hedy under virtual house arrest.

One day when Mandl was on a trip abroad, Hedy slipped sleeping pills into her maid's coffee and, dressed in a servant's uniform, headed straight for a London-bound train.

In London she met studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a $500-a-week MGM contract and gave her the name Hedy Lamarr.

Her influence on America began even before she took her first Hollywood part. Lamarr was already notorious for her nude role in the 1932 film "Ecstasy." The Czech production was banned in the Unites States until 1935, when U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Learned Hand ruled it could be released.

In Hollywood, she played roles opposite Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable and was popular as a femme fatale in parts such as her title role in "Samson and Delilah."

Critics of the day thought her acting ability was limited, but Lamarr's look was copied by actresses and moviegoers alike. She inspired the center-parted brunet hairstyle popular with women throughout the 1940s, including Virginia Blythe, mother of a boy later known as Bill Clinton.

It was at a dinner party in 1940 at the home of actress Janet Gaynor that Lamarr engaged composer Antheil in a discussion on the perils of Nazism.

According to an article in Forbes magazine, Lamarr told Antheil of an idea she had for a device to protect U.S. radio-guided torpedoes from enemy attempts to jam them.

Lamarr thought a signal could be broadcast over a series of quickly changing frequencies. The signal could be picked up by a receiver within the torpedo that would automatically switch frequencies to match the transmitters.

Intrigued, Antheil suggested that they develop the idea together. Lamarr agreed, and scrawled her phone number in lipstick across the windshield of Antheil's car.

A wildly experimental composer long before the likes of John Cage and Philip Glass, Antheil had once scored a composition for 16 synchronized player pianos, two electrically driven airplane propellers, four xylophones, four bass drums and a siren.

Now, he proposed controlling the frequencies for the transmitter and receiver with paper rolls like those controlling player pianos: The couple's design specified the use of rolls perforated with identical patterns to match the split-second hops in radio frequencies. The number of frequencies to be used, 88, matched the number of keys on a piano.

Lamarr and Antheil sent their idea to the National Inventors Council, a Commerce Department division that had been created to encourage ideas from the public, and patented their idea. But after turning their idea over to the government for the war effort, the composer and screen siren were largely ignored.

"She was naively thinking they would implement it right away to stop Hitler," Loder said.

Lamarr also offered to work for the National Inventors Council, but was told she could be more helpful selling War Bonds as a celebrity. She obliged, selling $7 million worth of bonds in a single day by offering kisses at $50,000 a pop.

In the late 1950s, after Lamarr's and Antheil's patent expired, Sylvania engineers independently developed a similar concept. Their device, using electronic controls instead of paper rolls, became the foundation for the secure military communications used today.

The fact that two artists had beaten the engineers to the punch by nearly two decades seemed destined to escape public notice forever. In the Cold War era, the military expanded its use of frequency hopping (also known as spread spectrum) technology, relying on it to secure communications during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. But the idea was not widely known in the civilian world.

All of that changed in the 1990s, as telecommunications became a bigger part of everyday life. Interest in frequency hopping grew because it is one way to enable multiple users to share a single radio frequency - an important task as more and more pagers, cellular phones and other devices crowd into limited airwave space.

With the growth in magazines and journals devoted to telecommunications, and abundant Internet sites on the topic, the work of Lamarr and Antheil (who had died in 1959) found an eager audience.

Robert Price, a Lexington, Mass., electronics consultant who worked on research and development of communications systems for the military and industry said Lamarr deserves credit for her original idea. "Whether [others conceived the idea] independently or not, it was still her idea," he said.

Price said the Milstar system, designed to launch intercontinental nuclear missiles, may be the most important application of Lamarr's concept.

"Her technology survived to the present day in one major system on which the security of the U.S. depends," he said.

Another researcher, David Hughes of Colorado Springs, is now working on a National Science Foundation-funded project using technology based partly on Lamarr's and Antheil's concept to access the Internet through radios instead of telephones. Hughes hopes that application will make the Internet more accessible to rural schools.

The renewed interest may be the best publicity Lamarr has gotten in decades. Her film career faded in the 1950s. Later, Lamarr lost a part to Zsa Zsa Gabor, and she made her last movie, "The Female Animal," in 1957.

Lamarr was infuriated by a ghost-written 1967 autobiography that detailed her sexual encounters with men and women, according to her son. "That was a real shock to Hedy, it's what blew her into seclusion," Loder said.

Lamarr also was arrested for shoplifting twice. In 1966 she spent five hours in Los Angeles' Sybil Brand jail. In a 1991 incident, no charges were filed after an arrest outside Orlando, Fla.

After years of tribulations, including six marriages and divorces, Loder said, the current celebration of Lamarr's invention has made his mother "very happy."

"She's happy for all that grew from the seeds she planted, that it was not conceived in vain," he said.

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