How Hedy Lamarr Gave Us The Cell Phone

by BUST Magazine


YOUR CELL PHONE has a glamorous secret. The technology that makes it possible for you to have a conversation without everyone in the world listening in is based in part on a torpedo-guidance system patented by none other than movie star Hedy Lamarr. In her Hollywood heyday, she was known as the most beautiful woman in the world, but the frequency-hopping mechanism Lamarr conceptualized and implemented (with the help of avant-garde composer George Antheil) during World War II is also the basis for the multibillion-dollar wireless-communications industry. In the words of Dave Hughes, technical consultant on Face Value—an upcoming film about the Lamarr-Antheil collaboration starring Rachel Weisz—if “Helen of Troy is known as the face that launched a thousand ships, Hedy Lamarr’s is the face that launched a million [computer] chips.”

Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, in 1914, the young actress first garnered what became a lifetime of notoriety when she appeared completely nude in the Czech film Ecstasy (1933). Perhaps even more scandalous than the sight of the young woman running naked through the woods and swimming in a lake was a closeup of her face as she simulated orgasm. Lamarr always maintained that a zoom lens had been used for the nude scenes without her knowledge and that the expression flitting across her face was not ecstasy but pain: at just the right moment, the film’s director, dissatisfied with what he considered her wooden performance, jabbed a safety pin into her behind. But in her new and definitive biography, Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film (University Press of Kentucky, 2010), film historian Ruth Barton notes that Lamarr almost certainly knew that nudity was required for the role.

The same year that Ecstasy appeared in theaters, the 19-year-old Lamarr married Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl. A control freak who considered his beautiful wife little more than arm candy (and reputedly sought to buy up all the prints of Ecstasy), Mandl expected Lamarr to play hostess at the dinners he regularly held for Nazis and other Fascist bigwigs to whom he hoped to sell arms. One topic of conversation at these get-togethers was the way in which radio signals from a plane or ship could be used to control a torpedo speeding toward its target. A major drawback of radio control was that because the systems used a single frequency, all an enemy had to do to disrupt the torpedo’s accuracy was find that channel and create enough electromagnetic noise to jam the frequency. The charming Mrs. Mandl, sitting quietly among them at the dinner table, was far too pretty to understand a word of such shoptalk—or so the menfolk no doubt assumed.

Three years of Mandl’s controlling nature and abhorrent politics (though she kept it a secret all her life, Lamarr was Jewish) was all she could handle. According to Lamarr’s highly entertaining but not necessarily reliable autobiography, Ecstasy and Me (1966), after Mandl thwarted several of her attempts to leave him, she drugged a maid, then snuck out of the house dressed in her uniform. She took nothing with her but a few items of clothing, a package of jewelry, and as Ruth Barton notes, the intellectual property she picked up at Fritz Mandl’s dinner table. Lamarr fled first to Switzerland, then London. Finally, in 1937, she embarked for America on the ocean liner Normandie. Also onboard was MGM head Louis B. Mayer; by the time the ship arrived in New York, Hedwig Kiesler had a movie contract and a new name. 

Lamarr was a full-fledged Hollywood star and married to her second husband, Gene Markey, when she met George Antheil in 1940, with films such as Algiers (1938) and Lady of the Tropics (1939) under her belt. Antheil was a concert pianist best known for his Ballet Me?canique, a surrealist composition scored for 16 player pianos, 3 xylophones, and 3 airplane propellers, among other noisemaking devices. He was also fascinated by endocrinology, as it pertained both to criminology and how to pick up women; his articles on the subject were published in Esquire

Lamarr invited Antheil to her home, where he was shocked to find her living room filled with drawing boards where the movie star worked on her inventions. 

According to his memoir, Bad Boy of Music (1945), Lamarr was curious about Antheil’s theories and summoned him to a meeting at the home of mutual friends. Could gland extracts be used to make her breasts larger? Lamarr wanted to know. Antheil stuttered words to the affirmative. She scrawled her phone number in lipstick across his windshield, and when he called the next day, she invited him for dinner. Afterward, they discussed the war in Europe. Antheil recalled that Lamarr “said that she knew a good deal about new munitions and secret weapons, some of which she invented herself.” She was, she told him, “thinking seriously of quitting MGM and going to Washington, D.C., to offer her services to the newly established Inventors’ Council” (which solicited civilian inventors for defense-related ideas). Antheil thought Lamarr’s idea for a new kind of radio-directed torpedo was so good that he “suggested she patent it and give it to the United States government.”

Ruth Barton quotes another, unpublished account by Antheil of his first meeting with Lamarr. In this version, Lamarr invited Antheil to her home, where he was shocked to find her living room filled with drawing boards where the movie star worked on her inventions. He speculated that she had purposely sought him out as a collaborator, having discovered that Antheil had “at one time been a government inspector of U.S. Munitions.” His knowledge, he admitted, was “a bit dusty, nevertheless I was undoubtedly the only ‘munitions brain’ available at the time, and Hedy had decided that I would have to do.” (Lamarr didn’t mention the collaboration or the patent that resulted from it in the pages of Ecstasy and Me, focusing instead on her raucous love life and six marriages.)

However they met, the collaboration that followed was remarkable. Lamarr’s contribution was the concept of “frequency hopping.” As described by Hans-Joachim Braun, professor of modern social, economic, and technological history at the University of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg, frequency hopping is a way of broadcasting a signal “over a seemingly random series of radio frequencies, switching from frequency to frequency at split-second intervals. A receiver hopping between frequencies in sync with the transmitter can pick up the message, while any eavesdropper will hear only random blips. An attempt to jam the signal will knock out only bits of it, often leaving enough untouched to do no harm at all.” She may well have heard similar ideas discussed at Fritz Mandl’s dinner table, but it was she who refined the concept, aided by Antheil, whose knowledge of synchronization was honed by his work with player pianos. Indeed, the patent for the “Secret Communications System” granted to Hedy Kiesler Markey and George Antheil on August 11, 1942, utilized perforated paper rolls and 88 frequencies—the exact number of keys on a piano. (A professor of electrical engineering from CalTech helped them iron out the bugs.)

Movie stars were supposed to help the war effort by dancing with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen or by going on the road to sell war bonds, not by de- signing military weaponry. (Lamarr was no slouch in this department either; she was credited with selling $25 million in war bonds during one 10-day tour, $7 million of it in a single day.) Nor was a woman as beautiful as Lamarr supposed to be intelligent; Antheil approvingly yet condescendingly noted that she had “a natural aptitude for the rather unfeminine occupation of inventor.”That a glamorous star was also an inventor was a publicity coup for the Inventors’ Council, at least as much as a “secret” device could be. “Actress Devises ‘Red-Hot’ Apparatus for Use in Defense,” was the subhead on a small article that appeared in The New York Times in October 1941. 

If she were alive and young today, Lamarr “would go to MIT or CalTech. Perhaps she’d still do some modeling on the side to pay off her student loans. But that wasn’t really an option for her in the 1930s.” 

Her discovery was so vital “to the national defense that government officials will not allow publication of its details,” except that “it was related to remote control of apparatus employed in warfare.” A similar article appeared in the Los Angeles Times the following week. Ruth Barton notes that, “under normal circumstances, the Patent Office would have issued a secrecy order” and speculates that the news was leaked “not because they planned to use the invention, but for public relations purposes.” Ultimately, the Navy proved uninterested in providing support for further research for the radio-controlled torpedo—they thought the paper rolls too bulky to be useable; Antheil argued they could be made small enough to fit in a watch casing—but they classified the patent anyway.

Could it have worked as designed? Hughes told The New York Times in 2004 that the patent was “the damnedest Rube Goldberg [device] you ever saw…but the seminal idea was there.” And what an idea it was: Lamarr’s patent formed the basis for an electronic version of frequency-hopping technology later developed by engineers from the Sylvania Electronic Systems Division that was employed on ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. But it was with the digital revolution and development of extremely fast computer micro- processors that frequency hopping (now known as frequency- hopping spread spectrum technology, or FHSS) really came into its own as a component of the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology used in mobile phones.

Even though Lamarr’s patent expired around 1959, it remained classified, so neither of its inventors were aware of the developments that were being made based upon their idea. In any event, Lamarr’s later years were not particularly happy ones, and she may have suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. She sued to stop the publication of Ecstasy and Me, calling it “false, scandalous, and vulgar”; she lost, and the book shot to the top of the best-seller lists. This was just one of a series of odd lawsuits, among them a $10 million invasion of privacy suit against Mel Brooks for naming a character in Blazing Saddles Hedley Lamarr (she settled for $1,000) and a $3 million libel suit against the owners of a two-headed goat bearing her name. She sold all her belongings at auction not once but twice, was arrested on several occasions for shoplifting, and often rambled incoherently during interviews. Her legendary looks were destroyed by repeated plastic surgeries. She disinherited one of her children and had rocky relationships with the other two.

Lamarr had always been ambivalent about Hollywood. “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” she allegedly said. Despite her obvious brilliance and gift for technology, she was limited by the era in which she lived and its beliefs about women, beauty, and intelligence, not to mention the paucity of opportunities available to them for scientific study. Playwright Elyse Singer, whose multimedia work Frequency Hopping was staged in New York in 2008, thinks that if she were alive and young today, Lamarr “would go to MIT or CalTech. Perhaps she’d still do some modeling on the side to pay off her student loans. But that wasn’t really an option for her in the 1930s.” Instead, Lamarr “knew that her looks were her capital and feared what would happen when she aged,” says Ruth Barton.

In 1985, the government declassified the Lamarr-Antheil patent for military use. Around the same time, the nascent mobile-phone industry adopted CDMA as the industry standard. Thus Hedy Lamarr’s frequency hopping became the basis not only for wireless communications but also for the Milstar defense communications satellite system and GPS. On March 12, 1997, at the age of 83, Hedy Lamarr became the toast of the technology world when the Electronic Frontier Foundation bestowed upon her a special Pioneer Award for “blazing new trails on the electronic frontier.” (Antheil, who died in 1959, also received the award.) As the EFF noted at the time, frequency hopping may not have helped the Allies defeat the Nazis as Lamarr and Antheil had hoped, but ironically, the “tool they developed to defend democracy half a century ago promises to extend democracy in the 21st century.” A slew of other awards followed. “It’s about time,” she said.

Hedy Lamarr died in 2000. But two years before her death, Canadian technology company Wi-LAN purchased 49 percent of the patent (though it was long expired and its intellectual property was part of the public domain) from Lamarr, in what technology writer Steve Stoh called “a symbolic and very generous gesture.” It was the only money she ever made from her invention.



This article originally appeared in the October/November 2010 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today

More from BUST:

5 Things You Need To Know About Hedy Lamarr

Throwback Thursday: 9 Inventions Created By Women 

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