Illustration by Matteo Farinella
5 facts about Hedy Lamarr, star, inventor, wartime code maker
“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid”
1. Hedy Lamarr was a self-taught inventor
Lamarr grew up in Austria, dropped out of high school in 1930 to pursue acting and never attended college. The closest she came to a formal education was through the dinner parties she attended with her first husband, a wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer many years her senior who reportedly dealt weapons to Mussolini and Hitler.
At these lavish events, which included scientists and high ranking leaders of the Axis powers, Lamarr was exposed to the frontiers of wartime technology and she first realized her lifelong affection for invention.
The marriage didn't last. Lamarr found her husband increasingly restrictive of her acting career and she fled for the United States with only the luggage in her hands. In one telling, she claimed to have disguised herself as a maid to make her grand escape undetected.
2. In collaboration with composer George Antheil, Lamarr patented a "Secret Communication System" designed to keep Nazis from intercepting Allied transmissions during World War II
While living in the United States and enjoying a successful acting career, Lamarr became fast friends with Antheil, an avant-garde piano composer known as "the bad boy of music." The two enjoyed long discussions about tinkering and inventing that soon turned to the Second World War unfolding overseas. Antheil recalled,
"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. She said that she knew a good deal about munitions and various secret weapons … and that she was thinking seriously of quitting MGM and going to Washington DC, to offer her services to the newly established Inventors’ Council."
Together, the duo filed a shared patent for an invention that prevented signals transmitted over radio from being intercepted by the enemy. They did this with a clever modification: instead of broadcasting over a single channel, messages would jump seemingly at random across many channels. This was called "frequency hopping." Their patent used 88 channels, a nod to the number of keys on the piano. If both the sender and receiver knew in advance the channels that would be used, the message would be easily decoded. But to a spy without the correct combination, the message would be indecipherable.
Patent No 2,292,387 was awarded in August of 1942. Lamarr is listed as "H.K. Markey," the name she assumed in her second marriage.
3. The idea wasn't adopted at the time, in part due to skepticism that an actress could contribute to technology
When Lamarr and Antheil approached the National Inventors' Council to present their device, they were rebuffed. The council suspected it would be too cumbersome to implement the communication system in military crafts.
She was also rebuffed in her direct attempts to help the war effort. When she offered her expertise in wartime technology to the council, she was denied. They suggested that the "most beautiful woman in films" could make a bigger difference by acting as a spokeswoman for war bonds.
4. Today, the invention is fundamental to wi-fi, bluetooth technology, and other wireless networks
In the 1950s, engineers at Sylvania Electric Products began looking seriously at the neglected patent. By the early 1960s, they completed the technology to finally implement frequency hopping – not with a bulky mechanical apparatus, as in the patent, but with an electric signal processing system.
In the ensuing years, the frequency-hopping mechanism became part of rapidly developing spread spectrum technology, which is foundational to nearly every modern wireless device. Frequency hopping provides numerous benefits for wireless communication: not only is it nearly impenetrable from a security perspective, it's less likely to interfere or be interfered with by neighboring signals. It's also especially difficult to jam a spread spectrum signal. For all these reasons, Lamarr's technology was critical to the development of wireless as we know it. Her contribution powers every cellphone, bluetooth device, and wi-fi network in use today.
5. It wasn't until the 1990s that Hedy Lamarr was properly recognized for her contribution to wireless communication
Although the number of people benefiting from her invention dwarfs the number of people who have seen her movies, it took decades for anyone to publicly recognize the immense value of her idea. After she was dismissed by the National Inventor’s Council, Lamarr remained an inventor privately, occupying herself between her celebrity obligations with tinkering projects. But to most, she was known only as a beautiful woman. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she lamented. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation selected Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil to receive their coveted Pioneer Award for their work on early spread spectrum technology. Mike Godwin, a member of the awarding committee, said, "Ironically, this tool they developed to defend democracy half a century ago promises to extend democracy in the 21st century."
Upon hearing of her award, Hedy responded, "It's about time."
Lamarr passed away in 2000, and since then her contributions have been retroactively recognized in numerous popular media. An off-Broadway play, Frequency Hopping, tells the story of her collaboration and friendship with Antheil. The Discovery Channel and Science Channel have both broadcast specials about her talents as an inventor, and Google has honored her with a doodle.
Hedy Lamarr was constrained by the gender norms of her time, but in the only patent she ever filed, she put a permanent mark on the wireless revolution. Although she never received widespread recognition for her clever innovation in her lifetime, its impact is felt daily by nearly every citizen of the digital age.