A TRIBUTE TO HEDY LAMARR, ACTRESS AND INVENTOR
The Inventor of Frequency Hopping,
a Web Technology
Hedy Lamarr's life story is far more interesting than any of her movies.
She quit school at the age of 16, and got a job working for director Max
Reinhardt. Starting as a production assistant, Hedy eventually appeared
in a couple of films in bit parts before making the headlines starring in
the Czech film, Ecstasy. In it, she appeared nude on screen, and
this shocked even European audiences.
Not yet twenty, Hedy married a man thirty years her senior. Mandl was an
arms merchant, selling munitions to Germany. He was a very controlling person
who had her watched at all times. One night at an evening party, Hedy drugged
her maid and escaped on a train to London.
In London, she signed a contract with MGM and moved to Hollywood to
become a film star. Louis B. Mayer promoted her as the next Greta Garbo.
She starred opposite such leading men as Charles Boyer, Clark Gable, Spencer
Tracy, and Victor Mature. In one film, Heavenly Bodies, she played
the wife of an astronomer, William Powell who is insanely jealous. It was
shot at the Mt. Wilson Observatory north of Los Angeles.
Beautiful and smart as a whip, Hedy befriended a maverick musician, George
Antheil. He is known for his experimental symphonies. One required 16 player
pianos. They met at a Hollywood party where they discussed the war in Europe
and the threat to America from Germany and Hitler. The following afternoon,
Antheil went to Lamarr's home to discuss what they could do to stop Hitler.
Cut to photo of Antheil adjusting
his equipment before a performance.
THE WAR EFFORT
With Antheil's help, Lamarr designed a new kind of guidance system for
torpedos. Eventhough her formal education consisted of private schools without
technical training, she had absorbed quite a bit about weaponry during her
marriage to the arms merchant, Mandl. Her role was the proverbial "arm
piece." She was present at all of her husband's business meetings,
but her brain was always in high gear.
Hedy and Mandl horseback riding.
Hedy knew that "guided" torpedos were much more effective
hitting a target, a ship at sea for example. The problem was that radio-controlled
torpedos could easily be jammed by the enemy. Neither she nor Antheil were
scientists, but one afternoon she realized "we're talking and changing
frequencies" all the time. At that moment, the concept of frequency-hopping
Antheil gave Lamarr most of the credit, but he supplied the player piano
technique. Using a modified piano roll in both the torpedo and the transmitter,
the changing frequencies would always be in synch. A constantly changing
frequency cannot be jammed.
Cut to a ship blowing up in the Pacific.
They offered their patented device to the U.S. military then at war with
Germany and Japan. Their only goal was to stop the Nazis. Unfortunately
or predictably, the military establishment did not take them or their novel
invention seriously. Their device was never put to use during World War
Close-up of U.S. Patent # 2,292,387
Lamarr wanted to continue working at the National Inventors Council, but
she was persuaded to raise money for war bonds back in Hollywood, selling
kisses for $50,000 a smack.
By the 1950's, the patent on the device had expired when engineers at Sylvania
"re-discovered" frequency-hopping. They called it "spread
spectrum." These electronic devices were designed for use during the
Cuban Missile crisis in the sixties. Hedy's film career was winding down.
She had turned down the lead in Casablanca and made a few other bad career
decisions. In one interview, she estimated that she went through about 30
million dollars. She never made a dime on her and Antheil's invention.
Today, spread spectrum devices using micro-chips, make pagers, cellular
phones, and, yes, communication on the internet possible. Many units can
operate at once using the same frequencies. Most important, spread spectrum
is the key element in anti-jamming devices used in the government's 25 billion
Milstar system. Milstar controls all the intercontinental missiles in U.S.
Fifty-five years and five marriages later, Lamarr was recently given the
EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) Award for their invention. Antheil
was also honored; he died in the sixties. Hedy's son accepted the award
for her since she no longer makes public appearances. From her Florida apartment
where she lived on a pension from the Screen Actor's Guild, Lamarr responded,
"It's about time."
Copyright 2000 by Kevin A. Nies
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