But Here’s The Thing About: Hedy Lamarr

In my Writing for New Media class, we had a reading the other day that recounted the history of communication, tracing in tedious detail the evolution of telegraph to cell phone. I kept waiting to see Hedy Lamarr’s name pop up somewhere in the long history but it never did. I wasn’t really surprised considering her own obituaries barely mentioned her contributions to wireless technology either but I was certainly disappointed. One of my friends and classmates also knew about the side to Hedy that few people are aware of and she, too, expected to see her name somewhere. 

However, I got to share some fantastic information with her that I’ll pass along to you as well. On April 24th, Hedy Lamarr’s documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” will be released on DVD and Bluray and it looks EPIC.

But, I’ll pause and take a step back for all of you who are wondering whether we are talking about THE Hedy Lamarr, the film actress, the “most beautiful woman in the world.” Yes, we are. And that’s what makes this a “But Here’s the Thing About” post because we are taking a much different look at a woman that everybody thinks they know.

Hedy was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria. However, much like the way I could never say “cement mixer” or “elephant” as a kid, Hedy had a hard time saying her own name, Hedwig, and simply called herself Hedy, a name that stuck throughout the rest of her life.

Her mother, Gertrud, wanted Hedy to have every opportunity to enjoy arts and music just like she had before marriage and motherhood made her abandon her career aspirations. So Hedy played the piano and danced from a very young age. Her father, Emil, a Jewish banker, first sparked Hedy’s scientific curiosities by telling her story after story about how things worked, such as streetcars or printing presses.

However, what she really found herself wanting to do was act, something that neither of her parents supported. Still, she knew it was what she wanted to do so she cut school to get a job as a script runner for a local film studio where she received a connection that led to her first bit part as an extra in “Money in the Street.”

In 1930, she enrolled in a renowned drama school in Berlin led by respected theatrical producer Max Reinhart. He gave her several bit parts in his shows and was the one who told the press that she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

Image Credit: CNET

Two years later, Hedy got her big break in a Czech film called “Ecstasy,” which featured a scandalous sex scene where she appeared completely nude. That really turned some heads.

Shortly after the film’s release, Hedy married millionaire weapon arms dealer Fritz Mandl. The union started off pleasantly enough. Fritz bought Hedy tons of jewelry and Hedy travelled with Fritz to all of his business meetings and conferences, but the marriage soon turned sour. Fritz became controlling and jealous, eventually demanding that Hedy stop acting. He even tried to buy up all the copies of “Ecstasy,” paying upwards of $60,000 per copy. There was a rumor that Mussolini had a copy that he refused to hand over to Fritz no matter what he was offering to pay.

If this wasn’t enough to turn Hedy off, she found out that Fritz was making arms agreements with Nazis. Not only that, but he, himself a Jew, had been named an honorary Aryan, a title assigned to Jewish men who proved their loyalty to Hitler by outstanding service.

She knew she had to get away but this proved difficult once Fritz ordered their servants to watch her and never permit her to leave their home. However, Hedy got a maid to help her escape and she slyly booked a ship to America on which it was well known that MGM producer Louis B. Meyer would also be sailing. By the end of the trip, they arranged a deal that would see Hedy making $600 a week (about $3,000 today) as long as she learned English. This started her career as a Hollywood actress and over the next decade or so, she would star in films that did reasonably well at the box office. However, nothing was hugely successful until “Sampson and Delilah” in 1949.

Over this time period, she became disenchanted with the movie business, partly because of the roles she was receiving. Due to the language barrier and her accent, many producers didn’t trust she could handle some of the more important and dramatic roles. For instance, she was initially chosen to star in Casablanca but she was supposedly turned away because of her accent. Producers also didn’t know what to do with her beauty, thinking she was too pretty to ever play a normal woman and often cast her in eye candy types of roles. She was desperate to prove that she was more than her beauty.

Image Credit: AZ Central

At a Hollywood dinner party in 1941, Hedy finally had a chance to put her intellect to work when she began to talk to avant-garde pianist and composer George Antheil about World War II, which had just started. They discussed the German U-Boats that were torpedoing ships in the Atlantic, many of which carried women and children aboard who were trying to flee the Nazis. Throughout the course of the conversation, Hedy discussed some ideas she had been turning around in her head since she first heard Fritz and his technicians talk shop at all of the conferences Hedy was made to attend. 

The main idea was torpedo control, something that Fritz had struggled wth. Hedy, however, had solved his issue of an enemy potentially jamming the controls by proposing a system in which the torpedo and the controller would consistently switch between frequencies. The idea intrigued George so much that the two met many times after to work on a way to develop this frequency hopping technique.

Image Credit: Alibi

George was famous for his Ballet Mechanique, which featured a dozen synchronized player pianos. Using the engineering he had used for his synchronization, he and Hedy created a way to conceptualize their idea. They created paper rolls perforated with random patterns to delineate the frequency paths. Rolls with the same pattern were installed in the transmitter and in the receiver. They based the entire system off of a piano, creating 88 different rolls of perforation after 88 keys, allowing 88 different frequencies to change at different intervals so that nothing would be intercepted.

Confused? I was, too. But all you need to know is that this laid the ground work for something called spread spectrum technology which could ensure the security of military transmissions and would eventually become a crucial part of cell phone technology.

George and Hedy patented their idea under the name “Secret Communication System,” and sent their idea to the Navy. However, the Navy thought the whole idea was ridiculous and told Hedy that she should stop her silly inventions and put her beauty to work raising money for the war.

Image Credit (East Bay Express)

And that was pretty much that until the 1950s when the transistor was officially invented and other inventors replaced Hedy’s paper rolls with transistors, creating a completely digital system. Pretty soon, there were patents all over the place for frequency hopping that all drew inspiration from Hedy’s patent. However, that patent had not only expired, leaving Hedy without a dime for her invention, but was also referred to as the “generic” patent, meaning that her name was left off of all of the citations for the subsequent inventions.

Pretty soon, her technology was used for secure communications during the Cuban Missile Crisis and for wireless networking systems in cell phones. AKA Wi-freaking-Fi. Hedy’s work is literally in the back pocket of everyone and yet her name is nowhere to be found in its history.

After the Navy rejected the patent, her career declined and she eventually left MGM in 1946 and retired from acting completely in 1958. She moved to Florida and went through another five marriages, all to men little better than Fritz. She had a pretty sad later half of her life but she found comfort in continuing to invent.

Image Credit: LA Times

She set aside a whole room in her house dedicated to inventing, complete with a drafting table, proper light and an entire wall of engineering reference books. She created a new traffic signal, an improved tissue box, an aid to help the disabled get in and out of the bath, a fluorescent dog collar and a cube that would turn water into soda after it dissolved. None of these were nearly as successful or influential as spread spectrum technology.

However, she finally reviewed acknowledgment for her contribution in 1997 when she was given a pioneer award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Her response says it all: “It’s about time.”

However, after she died in 2000, as I mentioned earlier, few of her obituaries made note of her invention or even her acting talent. Almost all that has been written until recently of her was about her remarkable beauty. Well, as a woman who spent her whole life looking for opportunities to prove the incredible power of her brain, Hedy deserved much better.

That’s why I’m so excited about the new documentary that will be released on April 24th and about the popularity of the Google doodle below that came out in honor of Hedy’s 101st birthday in 2015. It doesn’t make up for all the years that Hedy went by without recognition or respect, but it is an important reminder for young girls that they are a lot more than their looks. Hedy once said, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” However, I would counter that she has found a way to make glamorous synonymous with brilliance.