Hedy Lamarr is one of the most fascinating women I’ve encountered in my Herstory project. We all know her as a beautiful Hollywood star, but did you know that she invented a technology we’d all be lost without?
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in 1914 in Vienna to a Jewish family. At age 18, she starred in Extase, a movie that became notorious for her faked onscreen orgasm, which she achieved by being poked in the bottom with a safety pin. That year she married an intelligent, wealthy older man, but soon realised what a mistake she’d made. Her husband was extremely controlling, prevented her from pursuing her acting career and sought to destroy every copy of Extase in existence. A munitions manufacturer with close ties to Hitler and Mussolini, he insisted that Hedy accompany him to dinners, business meetings and conferences in the field of military technology. Her role was to sit quietly and look beautiful, but no-one imagined that she was taking in every word that was said.
When she attempted to return to acting, her husband prevented her from leaving his castle. She made her escape disguised as her maid, whom she’d drugged, and made her way to Paris, where she met Louis B Mayer. Mayer took her to Hollywood, renamed her Hedy Lamarr, and promoted her as the world’s most beautiful woman. Soon she was a star but her roles weren’t exactly challenging, usually the dark, exotic seductress. She famously said, ‘Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.’ To relieve her boredom, she invented things. Her earliest inventions include a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated beverage and a skin-tightening technique based on the principles of the accordion.
However, in the early 1940s, when it became obvious that the Americans would become drawn into the war in Europe, Hedy realised that her knowledge of Nazi technology might be useful. She knew that the Germans had been working on wireless means of controlling torpedoes, but their method used a single radio frequency communication, which was easy to jam and divert the torpedo off course. She invented a system whereby the transmitter and receiver randomly hop among several radio frequency channels, making signals difficult to jam. Together with the avant garde composer George Antheuil, they developed the technique of frequency hopping using a piano roll to randomly switch the signal sent from the control center to the torpedo in short bursts among 88 frequencies, like the 88 keys on a piano keyboard. Their invention was patented but they gave it to the military for free, and it wasn’t used until 1962 during a blockade of Cuba, by which time the patent had expired and Hedy’s involvement forgotten
Over the next decades, Hedy’s idea became absorbed into a larger area of technology known as spread spectrum communication. But when wifi technology took off, Hedy’s invention came into its own. Her original frequency hopping idea is the basis of bluetooth technology, used every day in computers and mobile phones.
Hedy had quite a colourful personal life too. She married six times, had two children and an adopted son from whom she became estranged, earned thirty million dollars but spent every penny. In her later years she became reclusive; seeing no-one, not even her family, but talked for up to seven hours a day on the phone. She turned to plastic surgery to preserve her fading looks but with disastrous results. And sadly her scientific work was not formally recognised until 1997, when she given an award by the Electric Frontier Foundation, but refused to come out of seclusion to collect it in person. She died aged 85 in January 2000.