November 9, 2015

Hedy Lamarr: From a diva to an inventor

News

Hedy Lamarr, a famed American actress and one of the most gorgeous women of the époque, would have turned 101 today. Her birthday is celebrated in German-speaking countries like Austria, Germany and Switzerland as Inventors’ Day. Is it merely a coincidence? Not at all. Lamarr is considered the inventor of the frequency-hopping method, which is still used by many communication protocols, including GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and CDMA.

Hedy Lamarr: From a diva to an inventor

Lamarr and her partner George Antheil hold a patent for ‘secret communication systems involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies.’ This idea served the basis for a communication method called Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS). FHSS paved the way to a handful of modern wireless technologies we use daily.

A point of contention among Lamarr’s fans and critics is that they cannot agree on whether the actress deserved praise for the invention. The devil is in the details, let’s try to find the answer. For this we will need to dig deeper into Lamarr’s biography, which promises to be a fascinating read.

Stand still and act stupid

As Lamarr used to say, “Any girl can be charming. You only need to stand still and act stupid.” She did not get any education in applied science. Instead, the young Jewish girl finished drama school and made her movie debut at 16-years old.

Three years later she starred in ‘Ecstasy,’ a controversial movie that transformed Lamarr into an icon. The film featured some nude scenes for the first time in the entire history of the cinematography. The public eagerly accepted this genre breakthrough along with the young actress’ bravery. In the same movie Lamarr also became the first actress to imitate an orgasm on camera – a scene as novel as it was scandalous. To look convincing, Hedy was deliberately poked with a safety pin when filming the scene.

The movie was pulled from theaters after outrage from the clergy, Lamarr was left with not much to do. She wound up marrying a a wealthy Austrian military arms merchant Friedrich Mandl. He was a jealous and controlling man who virtually held his wife hostage at home and brought her about everywhere so she was not left to her own devices. Despite his Jewish upbringing, Mandl was supportive of fascism (in its Austrian version – Austrofaschismus) and pursued opportunities to negotiate massive shipments of arms to the Nazi Germany – however, his plans never came true.

Hedy attended all of her husband’s business meetings – rumor had it that both Hitler and Mussolini were frequent guests to Mandl’s mansion. Lamarr accompanied her husband to his laboratories where she learned a lot about the anti-surface ship weaponry and guidance systems. In this case, her outstanding memory came in handy.

Lamarr was not supportive of her husband’s political views and hated fascism. After four miserable years of marriage to Mandl, she decided to flee to US. After a few failed attempts, Lamarr was finally successful after drugging her maid with sedatives and donning the maid’s garb. To help ease her transition into a new life in America, she ran off with a purse full of jewelry.

How to squeeze a piano into a torpedo

Lamarr received a warm welcome in Hollywood. At 25 Lamarr was investigating  the potential of hormones to increase the size of her breasts. This search introduced her to George Antheil – a composer, musician, and inventor, who also published articles in Esquire on how to interact with women based on their hormones.

Their first meeting was in September of 1940. After an exchange about the female anatomy, the conversation shifted to torpedoes. Lamarr was aware of the principles used in radio-controlled torpedoes. Their key disadvantage was a flawed guidance system: on discovering a threat, the adversary was able to jam the signal by broadcasting interference on the same frequency. The actress eventually came up with an idea of transmitting the signal on various frequencies.

Antheil handled the technical concept of the idea – in his particular manner, though. A transmitter and a receiver were using a piano roll to unpredictably change the signal sent at short bursts within a range of 88 frequencies in the spectrum (as there are 88 black and white keys on a piano keyboard).

Having successfully completed a trial on 12 melotropes, which Antheil used in his ‘Mechanical Ballet’ performances, the duo filed for a patent and then gave it away to the US Army.

Unfortunately, the American army did not adopt the new method. The method looked bulk and not easily to implement. Antheil was offended by this stating: “Oh my God, I just keep picturing them saying: ‘We can’t squeeze the piano into the torpedo!” Lamarr and Antheil’s invention was re-discovered in 50s and deployed in the following decade.

Was there an engineer?

To be honest, Lamarr was not the first to tackle the FHSS idea. It was hanging in the air, and unless she and Antheil patented it, someone else would have invented the technology.

Detractors are quick to dismiss Lamarr and point out her ‘greed’ and ‘petty theft’: They claim that she stole her ideas from her ex-husband and his employees, as she never worked in tech and never filed a single patent before. That claim though is not true; before working on FHSS, the actress invented a dissolvable cola-flavored pill to produce instant soda drinks at home.

Hedy Lamarr: From a diva to an inventor

At the same time, Lamarr’s story is not only a tale of the “true inventor of FHSS.” It is also the tale of true patriotism, ability to think outside the box and willingness to expand one’s perception of the world. Lamarr gave away her patent to the US Army so they could battle the Nazis. When her gift was rejected, the Army suggested she could help by using her celebrity status to advertise war bonds instead, and she did, eventually rising over $7 million for the Allies.

Lamarr and Antheil were granted their patent mere eight months after Perl Harbor. Had they been a bit earlier with their idea, this technology potentially could have saved lives of countless American and British navy officers.

So why was Lamarr’s invention neglected in 40s and deployed decades later, when the patent expired? Well that is a frequent case with inventions. It may well be that the technology was treated as unworthy just due to the fact the idea was the child of a Hollywood diva and an Avant guard composer.

In 1997, Electronic Frontier Foundation officially awarded the actress for inventing FHSS. In 2014 Hedy was introduced to the Inventors’ Hall of Fame. Her unconventional trivia and the ongoing media buzz around her name transformed the story of her life into a legend which continues to evolve every day adorned by new details imagined or discovered by various authors.