I know Hedy Lamarr (November 9, 1914 – January 19, 2000) as an Austrian-American actress. I did not know that Lamarr also co-invented – with composer George Antheil – an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, necessary to wireless communication from the pre-computer age to the present day. The patent for their invention was awarded on this day in 1942.
Lamarr wanted to join the National Inventors Council, but she was told that she could better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds. She once raised $7,000,000 at a single event.
Her patented invention was not implemented in the USA until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba – after the patent had expired. Perhaps owing to this lag in development, the patent was little-known until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr an award for this contribution.
Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency-hopping idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as COFDM used in Wi-Fi network connections and CDMA used in some cordless and wireless telephones. It is reported that, in 1998, Ottawa wireless technology developer Wi-LAN, Inc. “acquired a 49 percent claim to the patent from Lamarr for an undisclosed amount of stock” (Eliza Schmidkunz, Inside GNSS), although expired patents have no economic value. Antheil had died in 1959.
Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, the only child of Jewish parents, Gertrud (née Lichtwitz), a pianist and Budapest native who came from the “Jewish haute bourgeoisie”, and Lemberg-born Emil Kiesler, a successful bank director. Her father died in Vienna before the Holocaust, and Lamarr rescued her mother.
In early 1933 she starred in Gustav Machatý‘s notorious film Ecstasy, a Czechoslovak film made in Prague, in which she played the love-hungry young wife of an indifferent old husband. Closeups of her face during orgasm in one scene, and full frontal shots of her in another scene, swimming and running nude through the woods, gave the film great notoriety.
On 10 August 1933 she married Friedrich Mandl, a Vienna-based arms manufacturer 13 years her senior. In her autobiography Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr described Mandl as an extremely controlling man who sometimes tried to keep her shut up in their mansion. The Austrian bought as many copies of Ecstasy as he could possibly find, objecting to her in the film, and “the expression on her face” (Lamarr in her autobiography, objecting to the rumors about real sex, admitted that her costar had indeed played the scene with her using “method acting reality,” but she also claimed that the film’s director had simulated looks of passion from offscreen by poking her in the bottom with a safety pin).
Mandl prevented her from pursuing her acting career, and instead took her to meetings with technicians and business partners. In these meetings, the mathematically talented Lamarr learned about military technology. Otherwise she had to stay at the castle Schloss Schwarzenau. She later related that, even though Mandl was part-Jewish, he was consorting with Nazi industrialists, which infuriated her. In Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr wrote that dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler both attended Mandl’s grand parties. She related that in 1937 she disguised herself as one of her maids and fled to Paris, where she obtained a divorce, and then moved on to London. According to another version of the episode, she persuaded Mandl to allow her to attend a party wearing all her expensive jewelry, later drugged him with the help of her maid, and made her escape out of the country with the jewelry.
Most of us are probably more familiar with her life in Hollywood. Her American film debut was in Algiers (1938). Read more at Hedy Lamarr. (Note: Ms. Lamarr’s year of birth is listed differently in different places. Depending on the source, it was 1913, 1914, or 1915.)