There used to be a misconception in our society that a beautiful woman could not have a brain. It was assumed the two were mutually exclusive and any success she achieved was due to her looks. This idea seemed most prevalent in Hollywood. During World War II, however, one Hollywood actress proved there was more to her than a pretty face. She developed a new communication system to power torpedoes. She expected this weapon to turn the war in the Allies favor. While her idea was initially rejected, today that technology is an integral part of our daily lives. Her name was Hedy Lamarr. This is the story of how her creative genius first introduced the world to frequency-hopping.
Hedy Lamarr’s alluring beauty always seemed to overshadow her intelligence. Born Hedwig Kiesler to Jewish parents in 1914, she grew up in Vienna, Austria in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She often took long walks with her father and listened to him describe the workings of mechanical devices. She also developed a love of acting and dreamed of being a movie star. Her dream came true when, at age sixteen, she won a small part in Money in the Streets. Soon after she won fame for her portrayal of Eva in the Czech film Ecstasy. That appearance drew the attention of Austrian arms dealer Friedrich Mandl. He appealed to her mind with his descriptions of his industrial factories and his dealings with foreign leaders. The two were married, but Hedy quickly realized she was a trophy to be displayed. Her beauty gave her a secret advantage though. She was able to listen as Mandl and his guests, often Nazi generals, discussed such technology as a remote-controlled, wakeless torpedo. Lamarr knew she could she use this information once she had resettled in America.
By the late 1930s, Hedy Lamarr had tired of life with Mandl and decided to start a new life in America where her talents would be appreciated. On her journey she met Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios, and impressed him enough that he offered her a seven-year contract with the studio. She arrived in Hollywood in October 1937, and a year later, she won the adoration of the American public with her role of Gabi in Algiers. In 1940 she teamed with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable to make Boom Town, and two years later she reteamed with Tracy in Tortilla Flat. She was so successful she was considered for the part of Ilsa in Casablanca, the role Ingrid Bergman later made famous. Despite her growing fame, however, Hedy was not a social butterfly like other Hollywood stars. Instead of attending parties, she much preferred spending evenings at home with a few friends discussing important issues. Ever the creative type, she also enjoyed sitting at her drafting board crafting new designs. Among these designs was a bouillon-like dissolvable tablet that created soda similar to Coke and a tissue-box attachment to dispose of used tissues. The eruption of World War II, however, caused her to shift from trivial inventions to innovations the Allies could use to win the war.
By August 1940 Hedy Lamarr heard how German weapons were wreaking havoc on Allied naval forces. German commanders had recently announced that all areas around the British Isles were considered operational zones, and German submarines could attack any ship passing through the zone. It became apparent that British naval vessels were not the only targets. One of the ships targeted and sunk was filled with refugees seeking shelter in Canada. Among those on board were ninety children. Only thirteen survived the disaster. Having just adopted a baby boy, Hedy was horrified at the thought of innocent children being killed. She determined the Allies needed to eliminate the German submarine menace and set to work developing a remote-controlled torpedo. Later that month she came into contact with film composer George Antheil whose knowledge of synchronizing player pianos, radio electronics like microphones and sound recording, and inventing and breaking codes would prove invaluable. By the end of September they were hard at work developing a new type of torpedo.
Both Lamarr and Antheil understood the key was finding a way to control the direction of a torpedo wirelessly. Fortunately, they had a new radio with which to experiment. The radio was manufactured by Philco and came with a wireless remote control. Known as the Mystery Control, the cubic control operated much like an old telephone. There were ten holes a person dialed to switch between eight radio stations, adjust the volume and turn the radio off. Of most use to the pair, the remote feature allowed wireless control from across the room. Except for turning it on, a person no longer had to change a radio manually. This new invention convinced Hedy and Antheil it was possible to use a radio to direct the movement of a torpedo without human control. There would have to be two radios though, a transmitter on the ship or plane and a receiver in the torpedo itself. The real challenge was preventing interference because most radios operated on a fixed frequency. Dealing with interference and jamming would be a major obstacle.
Lamarr and Antheil concluded that both the transmitter and receiver had to “hop” simultaneously from one frequency to another. So was born the concept of “frequency-hopping.” It was not enough though for the radios just to change frequency, they had to change quickly and often to prevent enemy transmitters from zeroing in on the frequency. This led Lamarr and Antheil to believe that manual radio operators were insufficient. There needed to be a mechanical device set with a predetermined pattern that would cause both radios to constantly change frequencies simultaneously. The question was how would the device operate. After much consideration, they adopted a system similar to that which powered a player piano. There would be a roll of paper with slots cut for each frequency. As the rolls turned on a control, pushrods would close a series of switches that connected different tuning devices to an oscillator, the electronic circuit that creates a carrier wave. The different tuning devices would emit a different frequency. Antheil persuaded Hedy there should be eighty-eight frequencies because that was the number of keys on a piano. She agreed. They recognized the radio transmission would need to switch randomly rather than progressively. This would prevent the Germans from jamming the frequency. As their work neared completion, the pair realized both the transmitter and the receiver could potentially become out of sync once the torpedo was under way.
Although Lamarr and Antheil had designed a system undetectable to enemy forces, they still had to invent an approach for releasing the rolls of paper simultaneously. They cut a special starting hole in the roll of paper and designed a pin and a wire-wrapped iron rod called a solenoid. The solenoid was connected to a battery by a wire. The battery circuit connected the ship’s transmitter to the torpedo’s receiver. When the torpedo was fired, the wire was broken and the solenoid rods pushed the pins into the starting holes. At the same time, clock motors would begin moving the rolls of paper, which would move at the same speed. As the torpedo was moving forward, the signals from the transmitter would be received by the torpedo, and a steering device would move the rudder either starboard or port (right or left). With the torpedo heading to its target, the seven transmitting channels would begin sending out different signals. Unknown to the enemy, however, there were only four channels on the receiver. Three channels were sending out false signals. Lamar and Antheil gave their invention the name Secret Communication System and prepared to present it to the U.S. government.
The first step in giving their torpedo to the government was to receive a patent for it. On June 10, 1941 Lamarr and Antheil registered their design with the U.S. Patent Office. A patent was awarded in August 1942, but by then it was apparent the torpedo would not be accepted. They had presented the design to the National Inventors Council in Washington, D.C. who approved it and forwarded the design to the U.S. Navy. War with Japan had just broken out, but the Navy brass still refused the new torpedo. They claimed it was too heavy. Antheil believed they focused on the phrase that equated the torpedo to a player piano. Both Lamarr and Antheil knew a player piano could not be built inside a torpedo, but the design itself could be made small enough to fit. Lamar took the rejection hard, so she buried herself in her career, new inventions, and supporting the war effort.
In the years after designing her radio-controlled torpedo, Hedy Lamarr remained that unique combination of beauty and brains. She and Antheil worked on designing an anti-aircraft shell with a proximity fuse that employed a magnetic field able to detect an airplane’s presence. Like the radio-controlled torpedo, the idea did not impress Navy personnel. As a result, Antheil suggested she turn her attention to selling war bonds. She took him up on it and barnstormed the country. On one trip she travelled to Philadelphia, Newark and New York raising $25 million. She also worked at the Hollywood Canteen serving men and women in uniform. After the war, she returned to acting, winning national acclaim for her role as Delilah in the 1949 production of Samson and Delilah. At home she invented a new traffic light, a device to help disabled people get out of the bath and a fluorescent dog collar. For the rest of her life though, she never forgot her greatest invention.
Hedy had originally feared her idea for “frequency-hopping” would be lost to the ages, but by the mid-1950s the technology had began to experience a resurrection. In 1954, the U.S. Navy asked an engineer to use the design to develop a Sonobuoy. He used Hedy’s concept, but he found the buoy difficult to control. The U.S. military set to work adapting the technology to the changing times. In 1962 it was used in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Renamed “spread spectrum,” it became the basis for America’s defense program. In the early 1980s, the technology was turned over to civilian companies. It provided the basis for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and UAVs. Though never recognized by the U.S. government for her contribution, the Electronic Frontier Foundation recognized Hedy for her pioneering work. On March 12, 1997 she received the Pioneer Award. She died three years later in January 2000 at age eighty-five, but her legacy will live on forever.
Hedy Lamarr proved it is possible for a woman to be both beautiful and brilliant. Sadly, her reputation as the “most beautiful woman in film” made it impossible for anyone to take her intelligence seriously. Beyond her looks and brains though, she was a creative genius and an ardent patriot, yet even her publicists preferred to focus on her stunning beauty rather than on her remarkable intellect. It can be argued that without her the world would be a very different place. Absent her inventive mind, who knows when, if ever, we might have come up with the technology we deem so necessary for modern life. In her last days, she must have taken comfort that the world knew her as more than a Hollywood starlet. She was not just a beautiful woman — she was blessed with a beautiful mind.