Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood Star Who Indirectly Invented Wi-Fi

by JoHarrington

The actress Hedy Lamarr was one of the biggest names in American and European cinema. She also invented the technology used in today's broadband and bluetooth.

In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation presented Hedy Lamarr with an award for her contribution to modern technology. So much of the programming that we take for granted owes a debt to her.

It's all something which would have confused cinema goers in the 1930s and 1940s, who regarded her in much the same way that we think of Angelina Jolie or Kristen Stewart today.

In fact, Lamarr was mostly famous for being the first screen actress to simulate an orgasm, while in close-up, on the silver screen.

Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

Hedy Lamarr: The Curse of Beauty

There seems to be a strange disconnect, which says that you can't be both beautiful and clever. This is even worse when your looks have made you a Hollywood celebrity.

Speak of Hedy Lamarr and the label soon follows - 'the most beautiful woman in the world'. 

It was used by the studio in the publicity for her films.  It was adopted by the press in their reviews of the same.  It was reinforced by World War Two military men, who voted her the pin-up that they most wanted with them on the front line.

Yet to Hedy Lamarr herself, the fact of her beauty was a curse.  It put her into the movies and made her famous, but it also meant that nobody took her seriously.  Behind the beauty was a razor sharp mind, bored by the banality of Hollywood parties and more at home with intellectual discussions and debates.

She was constantly being underestimated and dismissed.  When she presented the US military with a patent, which would revolutionize their technology, she was laughed out of the office.  The pretty, little thing would be much better occupied flirting with the American public to induce them to buy War Bonds.

The blueprint that she took to them that day is now used globally, not only in military technology but in all manner of computers and cellphones.

It took the world decades to catch up with Lamarr's mind.  She was too beautiful for them to notice it.

Hedy Lamarr: 1940s Hollywood Film Legend

The Trophy Wife of a Nazi Arms Dealer

Nobody, not even her husband, credited Lamarr with the intelligence to quietly take notes while weapons manufacturers discussed engineering around her.

Hedy Lamarr was already a movie star in her native Austria, when she met Friedrich Mandl. 

She was just nineteen years old and already grabbing headlines for the film Extase (Ecstasy in English).  There had been scenes where she ran naked through a woodland setting; and then there was that moment. 

Lying on a bed, the camera focusing in extreme close up on her face, her expression had been one of, ahem, rapture.

Friedrich, on the other hand, was thirty-two years old and reputed to be the third richest man in Austria.  They married on August 10th 1933, just eight months after the release of Extase.

There is no doubt that he viewed the actress as his 'trophy wife'.  As soon as they were married, Friedrich used his immense wealth in a bid to buy up every copy of Extase in circulation. He did not want anyone else to see her in the throes of passion. 

What he did want was for Hedy to sit down and shut up, smiling sweetly and waiting upon his guests, at the couple's lavish business dinners.

She was so bored.  She was so unbelievably bored.  But while the teenager was listening to all of these munitions men describing their latest torpedos, her quick mind couldn't fail to take notes.  These were important arms dealers.  Their weapons were the latest, biggest, fastest and most destructive on the market.  Hedy absorbed it all.

But Europe was changing.  In Germany, the Third Reich was rising and Adolf Hitler had just become Chancellor.  The Nazis became Friedrich's key clientele; and he supported their ideology too.  Which was a little worrying for Hedy, as she was Jewish.

She got to hear it all first hand.  Both Hitler and Mussolini attended parties hosted by the Mandls.  She heard her husband, so controlling in his marriage, also agreeing with policies which would destroy her people.

One day, Hedy persuaded her husband to allow her to wear all of her jewelry for a dinner party.  Then she simply left.   He pursued her.  He had the funds to pay for good investigators and information too.

Hedy ended up in Paris, France, where she hired a maid who looked just like her.  Drugging the poor woman, Hedy dressed in the maid's uniform and managed to sneak out unseen that way.  She was soon on an ocean liner heading to the United States of America.  She was free.

Meeting Louis B. Mayer

Also on board the Normandy, the ship sailing to America, was the movie mogul Louis B. Mayer.

It didn't take Hedy long to track him down and negotiate a contract.  Mayer was familiar with the actress's work in Europe and he was eager to have her on board in Hollywood. Hedy ensured that the terms were in her favor.

There was one proviso, which is that she learned to speak the English language.  It took her a matter of weeks to master it all; and her first Hollywood movie was released in 1938.

Between 1930 and 1958, Hedy Lamarr made thirty-four movies, only five of which were Austrian.  The rest were what catapulted her into stardom in the USA; and secured her listing in the Hollywood Hall of Fame.

Hedy Lamarr Film Clips

More Hedy Lamarr Movies

Check out these films to discover what made Hedy Lamarr such a mega star during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Hedy Lamarr: The Intellectual in Bel Air

While other Hollywood celebrities party-hopped in the limelight, Lamarr liked nothing better than one on one conversations in the comfort of her home.

All of that fame and fortune soon secured a place for Hedy Lamarr in LA's most exclusive neighborhoods. 

By 1941, she was living at 11805 Bellagio Road, in Bel Air, amongst the biggest A-List stars of her day.  Yet if her fellow industry movers and celebrities loved the high life, it wasn't for Lamarr.  She much preferred to ferret out the intelligentsia and invite them around for dinner.

Amongst them was one of her neighbors, the Hollywood Bad Boy of Music George Antheil.  It's not difficult to see what the attraction was there.  As the son of German immigrants, he spoke her language; as a man who loved tinkering with mechanical things, he spoke her intellectual language too.

There were hints at a romance between the couple (who are pictured above), but both parties denied it.  It wasn't love that each were after (they were both married to other people), it was the spark of ideas.

In particular, it was an idea which Hedy Lamarr had conceived, which she had identified may be developed with one of Antheil's most famous inventions. 

The avant garde movie Ballet Mécanique (1924) had been the showcase for that.  It had called for multiple pianos to be played simultaneously, but not by human hands.  As a musician, Antheil had been responsible for the score.  As a man obsessed with mechanics, he'd also worked out how to install rollers inside the pianos, to press the keys in perfect time.

Hedy needed that technology.  It fitted in perfectly with the blueprints for her own invention, and it would be the thing which made it all actually work.

Image: Part of Lamarr and Antheil's blueprint.
Image: Part of Lamarr and Antheil's blueprint.

Frequency Hopping with the Secret Communication System

Lamarr and Antheil gained their patent on August 11th, 1942. Their system provided an important starting point for today's Wi-Fi, GPS and other technology.

In 1941, the Second World War was raging in Europe.  The United States of America were not yet involved (Pearl Harbor wasn't until December 7th), but there were plenty who thought that they might be.

Hedy Lamarr, at home in Hollywood, had more reason than most to be concerned about developments in Europe.  Her entire family was there.  She had knowledge of the munitions available to the Nazis.  She wanted America to have better.

This was Lamarr's idea. She thought that it may be possible to guide a torpedo with radio-waves; to direct precisely where it may fall.  However, she was also keenly aware that radio-waves could be intercepted by enemy hackers.  She needed a way to transmit them in such a way that no-one checking in would even be able to locate the directions, let alone read them.

She took this idea, along with her blueprints and formulas, to Antheil.  She had worked out how his piano roller mechanics might be the key to both diverting and interrupting the frequency.  It would transmit the instructions on one wave, then switch instantly to another, then another and another.

In the middle of all of this, there would be random instances of blank data.  That would confuse all hacking equipment.

Antheil was enthralled.  He and Lamarr spent days brain-storming refinements and tinkering with her initial design.  They were finally ready to take their Secret Communication System to the patent office, then to the US military.

What they registered that day is very well known to us today.  It provides the kernel of technology behind Spread Spectrum Communication Technology.  In short, it's what allows you to call on your cell phone, find routes with your GPS and connect to the internet wirelessly.  While not the whole thing, Lamarr's idea grew into Wi-Fi.

Spread Spectrum Frequency Hopping Demonstrator

Still not quite sure what Hedy Lamarr conceptualized? This YouTube video demonstrates her idea, as it's been developed today.
CDMA: Principles of Spread Spectrum Communication

Spread spectrum multiple access communication, known commercially as CDMA, is a driving technology behind the rapidly advancing personal communications industry. Written by a le...

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Laughed Out of the US Navy's Office

Hedy handed her patent over to the military, as her contribution to the war effort. They told her that she'd be more use fund-raising by selling War Bonds.

There is little doubt that Lamarr and Antheil were ahead of their time with their frequency hopping idea.  It was never used in World War Two.

The fact of the matter is that the US Navy didn't take either of them seriously. 

Hedy Lamarr was too beautiful and too famous; George Antheil was too weird and a musician! Even as Lamarr tried to explain precisely what they were contributing here, the military men were dismissing her as an airhead.  She handed over the patent, as a gift.  They shoved it into a file and left it to gather dust.

Instead Hedy Lamarr was sent out onto the streets, entertaining the troops or appearing at War Bond galas.  With her beauty, sex appeal and stardom, the American public would be beguiled into parting with cash.  That was seen as her true place in the war effort.

She attempted to join the National Inventors Council too.  It also suggested that public appearances were more her calling.

It wasn't until the 1960s, when military thinking had finally caught up with hers, that the patent's blueprint was pulled out and dusted off.  It was used during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It's been used ever since. 

Yet neither Lamarr nor Antheil ever made a penny off what is arguably one of the most significant inventions of the 20th and 21st centuries.  Their contribution went without credit until the Electronic Frontier Foundation Award in 1997.   Only then did President George W. Bush see fit to add his own accolade in 1999.

It was all too late for Antheil, who died in 1951.  It was nearly too late for Lamarr too.  She heard about it, but was a recluse in her old age.  She didn't venture out to collect her reward, then died at the age of 86 a few months later.

Books about Hedy Lamarr and her Inventions

Hedy Lamarr and a Secret Communication System (Inventions and Discovery series) (Graphic Library:...

In graphic novel format, tells the story of how Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr came up with the idea for a secret communication system, which would much later become the basis for w...

View on Amazon

Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone

Hedy Lamarr was a famous Hollywood star and the first woman to appear naked on film. George Antheil was a piano player and composer. So just how did these two come to invent the...

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Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone

Welcome to a world of secret communication, arms trading, mobile phones, film stars, piano players, nudity in the woods and one of the most unusual sources of revolutionary new ...

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Women Invent!: Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World

These inspiring stories of women inventors take the reader through the process of inventing—from coming up with an idea to having it manufactured and sold.

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Updated: 07/19/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 10/31/2013

Brains and beauty, what's not to love? Thanks for your comment.

Dan Cook on 10/31/2013

she has always been my dream girl.Big Ace

JoHarrington on 01/06/2013

Clouda9 - Thank you; we certainly owe Hedy Lamarr a debt of thanks.

JoHarrington on 12/26/2012

She's fascinating, isn't she? We were talking about her yesterday. My sister-in-law had forgotten to set a timer back home on her TV. My nephew was able to log onto it, from my house, and set that timer. They were using Hedy's technology then. :)

AngelaJohnson on 12/25/2012

I love reading unusual facts about famous people. What a woman!

JoHarrington on 12/15/2012

And largely an untold one too. We owe Hedy Lamarr a huge debt of thanks; at least us geek types do.

kate on 12/15/2012

what a great story!

JoHarrington on 12/13/2012

Yes, she did. There's a great deal of suggestion that's why she became a recluse, because the plastic surgery went wrong. She would probably have looked as beautiful in old age as in her youth.

Ragtimelil on 12/13/2012

Yeah, who wants to cuddle up with a stick insect - ha. It's sad that Hedy did succumb to plastic surgery in the end. I do love the actresses who manage to grow old gracefully in full view of the camera. I know it's not an easy process.

JoHarrington on 12/13/2012

That's the thing! You've hit the nail right on the head here. Hedy Lamarr is so frequently called 'the most beautiful woman in the world', but she's not a stick insect. She does look healthy, as you said. You could also throw people like Marilyn Monroe into this mix. Wasn't she a size 16?

I wish we could all move back to better ideals and not 'starve yourself to look 'pretty'' notions.

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