Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Hedy Lamarr, the Inventor

Did you know that besides being an actress and one of the most beautiful women in the world, Hedy Lamarr was also an expert mathematician and inventor?

Hedy Lamarr was born in 1914 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary to a wealthy Jewish family. It was her mother, a pianist, who introduced her to the wonders of the stage. «One day,» Hedy recalled, «mother promised me a nice present if I were good. The present was a visit, my first, to the theatre. I saw a stage play for the first time. I was thrilled and speechless. I don't remember the play, its title of anything about it. But I never forgot the general impression. School held but one interest from then on. I took part in school plays and festivals. My first big part came in Hansel and Gretel.» The first film she saw that had the same effect on her was Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), released when she was thirteen.

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
Hedy began taking acting classes with Professor Arndt in Vienna, at the same time that she found employment as a script clerk at Sascha Film, Austria's largest production company at the time. Soon, she was cast by director Georg Jacoby in a small role as an extra in Money on the Street [Geld auf der Straße] (1930), the first sound picture made in Austria. In August 1931, she moved to Berlin, where she filmed The Trunks of Mr. O.F. [Die Koffer des Herrn O.F.] (1931) and No Money Needed [Man braucht kein Geld] (1932), both of which were sucessful.

In early 1932, Hedy left Berlin to work in a film called Ecstasy [Ekstase] (1933), shot by renowned Czech director Gustav Machatý. Her role was that of a young woman married to an indifferent older man, who has a passionate love affair with a virile engineer. Ecstasy was highly controversial upon release, as it included a nude scene and a close-up of Hedy's face in the throes of orgasm. Her husband, Friedrich «Fritz» Mandl, was so incensed by her simulated orgasm scene that he prevented her from pursuing her acting career.

Fritz Mandl was one of Europe's most prominent military arms merchant and munitions manufacturer, who had close ties to the fascist government of Italy, as well as to the Nazi government of Germany. According to Lamarr's autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler attended Mandl's parties. As his wife, Hedy was forced to accompany Mandl to his business meetings with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. These conferences ultimately introduced her to the field of applied science and awakened her latent talent in the scientific field.

By the time the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Hedy Lamarr had divorced Mandl and become an established actress in Hollywood. She signed a contract with MGM in 1937 and quickly stunned audiences with performances in such film as Algiers (1938), her American debut, and Boom Town (1940). Like so many other European émigrés, Hedy threw herself into the war effort; in her case, serving in the Hollywood Canteen and selling war bonds. «I worked constantly at the Canteen and I worked hard,» Hedy remembered. «Some nights I signed so many autographs I thought my arm would drop off, but I couldn't resist those boys, and, in the end, I was able to dance with pleasure.» Hedy also actively participated in the national war bonds drive. Along with her friend Greer Garson and other such as Irene Dunne and Ronald Colman, she was one of the headliners in the Star over America tour. Hedy visited sixteen cities in ten days and is credited with selling $25 millions in bonds.

When the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Lamarr, who in the meantime had become an established actress in Hollywood, wanted to do more to help the war effort than just sell war bonds. She wanted to use her interest in science to aid in the defeat of Nazism and Adolf Hitler, who was relentlessly attacking Europe.


In the early 1940s, Lamarr met the avant-garde composer and Nazi opponent George Antheil at a party and they became friends. Antheil also wanted to do anything he could to help the war effort and soon they started working on what they called the "Secret Communications System." I'm not understood in this kind of matters, but this is what I could gather from how the invention worked. Lamarr and Antheil were able to develop a mechanism that used identical piano rolls to manipulate radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, forming an unbreakable code that prevented classified messages from being intercepted by the enemy. They wanted to use this with radio-controlled torpedoes, which were important in the naval war, but could easily be jammed and rerouted. Lamarr and Antheil submitted their patent in 1941 and were awarded U.S. Patent 2,292,387 for the "Secret Communication System" on August 11, 1942. Although this earlier version of frequency-hopping could potentially help win the war, the invention was dismissed by the U.S. Navy and was never implemented during World War II.

Lamarr and Antheil's "Secret Communication System"

It was only in 1962 that Lamarr and Antheil's invention was implemented, when the U.S. military used it on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis after the patent expired. This idea of frequency-hopping would later serve as the basis for modern spread-spectum communication technology, such as cell phones, fax machines, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Sadly, Lamarr and Antheil received little credit for their invention during their lifetime, but they were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

If you're interested in learning more about the "Secret Communication System," you can read a detailed description of the invention by clicking here.

No comments:

Post a Comment