Hedy Lamarr

Monday, November 28, 2011


“Hedy didn’t drink. She didn’t like to party. Her idea of a good evening was a quiet dinner party with some intelligent friends where they could discuss ideas — which sounds so un-Hollywood, but Hedy had to find something else to do to occupy her time.” In his new book Hedy’s Folly, author Richard Rhodes sheds light on the little-known side hobby of Hedy Lamarr, Austrian-American actress, Golden Age screen siren, and… inventor.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Rhodes, who talked up his book yesterday on NPR, connects the dots between Lamarr’s sizable downtime as a contracted studio star with only a handful of work commitments per year, her frequent access to dinner table chatter with luminaries and politicians alike, her desire to battle the Nazis as the daughter of Austrian Jews, and her natural gift for ideas.

As a result, Lamarr wasn’t just “the most beautiful woman in Europe;” she was a patent-holder who, along with avante-gard composer George Antheil, came up with the idea of frequency-hopping radio signals that could guide Allied torpedoes to their targets, avoiding enemy radio jammers.

From NPR:

“She understood that the problem with radio signals was that they could be jammed. But if you could make the signal hop around more or less randomly from radio frequency to radio frequency, then the person at the other end trying to jam the signal won’t know where it is,” [Rhodes] says. “If they try to jam one particular frequency, it might hit that frequency on one of its hops, but it would only be there for a fraction of a second.”

Thus, her take on “spread-spectrum radio” was born. Lamarr and her co-inventor, composer George Antheil, submitted their idea to the National Inventor’s Council and received a patent for their “Secret Communication System” in 1942. They were anxious to share their invention with the Navy, but got a lackluster response.

“The Navy being the Navy, if it hadn’t been able to make a torpedo that worked, obviously it wasn’t going to be receptive to ideas coming in from outside,” Rhodes says. “The Navy basically threw it into the file.”

The technology was later developed into the spread spectrum broadcasting and frequency-hopping techniques that make modern tech like Bluetooth and GPS possible. In 2007, Lamarr received a special award for her contribution from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “When they called her up to tell her she would get the award,” says Rhodes, “her first words were, Hedy Lamarr being Hedy Lamarr, ‘Well, it’s about time.’”

Just imagine what technologies of tomorrow today’s celebrities could be dreaming up in their downtime…

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