Feature: Portrait – Hedy Lamarr

HedyLamarr

Many will have heard of Hedy Lamarr – she was considered the most beautiful woman of film, had one of the most controversial film roles of the 30s and she was reportedly the inspiration for Anne Hathaway’s version of Catwoman. Not as many will have heard of the other side of this remarkable woman – the inventor and mathematician. She and her colleague George Antheil laid the ground work for frequency-hopping spread spectrum, which is the basis for the spread-spectrum communications technology we use pretty much daily in the form of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler to Jewish parents in Vienna on the 9th of November 1914. In the late 1920s she was discovered as an actress by German producer Max Reinhardt. After her theater training in Berlin she returned to Vienna and started working in the film industry. It was there she met and married military arms merchant Friedrich Mandl. A very controlling husband, Mandl took Hedy along to business meetings and keeping her more or less locked up at their castle home Schloss Schwarzenau, where according to Lamarr herself both Hitler and Mussolini attended parties. These business meetings and conferences introduced Lamarr to the idea of applied science, and was the start of her scientific interest. What she overheard during those meetings would spur her scientific efforts at the start of the second world war.

Finding her situation unbearable, she eventually escaped to Paris where she met talent scout Louis B. Mayer. On his insistence she changed her name to Hedy Lamarr and on her arrival in Hollywood in 1938 Mayer promoted her as the world’s most beautiful woman. This was the start of a Hollywood career that would span two decades and 25 films.

When World War II began, Lamarr wanted to use her scientific interest and the information she overheard during Mandl’s business meetings to thwart the plans of Nazi Germany. She began investigating ways to bypass jamming and detection of radio controlled torpedos. After several years of working by herself she brought in avant-garde composer George Antheil to the project, and together they devised an invention which hopped between 88 frequencies. The U.S. Military were not interested – they thought Hedy would do more for he war effort by promoting war bonds – and the invention was forgotten for twenty years. Then, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, it was used by U.S. ships to during the blockade.

It wasn’t until 1997, however, that Lamarr was recognized for her research when the Electronic Frontier Foundation honored her with a special ‘Pioneer Award’ and she became the first woman to receive the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. A year later, Wi-LAN Inc. acquired 49% of the patent for an undisclosed sum and thanks to that we now have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology, among other things.

In 2014, Lamarr and Antheil were inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame.

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