Sunday Reads: Hedy Lamarr - Actress, Genius, Pioneer

The most beautiful woman in the world also happened to be one of the smartest. Meet the Hollywood siren who also had a hand in the invention of Bluetooth technology.

The most beautiful woman of her day, trapped in an abusive marriage in pre-war Austria, escapes to America with a headful of Nazi secrets and a trunkful of jewels. After charming her way into Hollywood, she becomes one of the biggest screen stars of her era. But not content to rest on her Tinseltown laurels, she sets herself to applying everything she knows about the Nazi war effort to the American one. In time, she invents a revolutionary new torpedo control system, and, in the process, the essence of Bluetooth - half a century before the technology gets that name.

And if that's not enough, she was a major part of Batman creator Bob Kane's inspiration for the character of Selina Kyle. 

If it weren't all true, it would be the stuff of bad fiction. But real-life badass Hedy Lamarr did all these things and more, fighting an uphill battle against her peers’ consistently low expectations of her, only to wait most of her long life to receive proper recognition for helping to spawn a revolution in wireless communication.

Hedy was born Hedwig Kiesler in 1913, the only child of Austrian Jewish parents. She thrived in the liberal, artistic Vienna of the '20s and '30s, and by age 19 had already achieved notoriety on screen for the (fairly scandalous) film Extase. That year, she married Fritz Mandl, the president of a major Austrian arms manufacturing company. The much older Mandl fell in love with Hedy after seeing her on the Vienna stage, and although initially put off by his unrelenting attempts to woo her, she eventually came to admire his intelligence and persistence, accepting a marriage proposal. Unfortunately, these more noble traits accompanied a domineering need for control, and in short order Mandl forced Hedy to abandon her acting career, virtually imprisoning her in his estates. He also set about buying up and destroying all the copies of Extase he could find in Europe.

Despite this, Mandl never underestimated Hedy's intelligence, and in private he routinely consulted her on matters of business, knowing that she was one of the only people in his orbit unafraid to speak her mind. She sat in on many of his meetings with potential clients as he played both the fascists and anti-fascists against each other in the uneasy Europe of the 1930s. Charged with being seen and not heard, she constantly absorbed the details of Mandl’s conversations with visiting military dignitaries, including representatives of Germany’s Third Reich.

Her marriage finally imploded when she attempted to return to the theater to Mandl’s outrage, and she quickly arranged an escape to London, making off with as many of her treasures as she could carry in a few steamer trunks and leaving divorce papers in her wake. From London she arranged passage to America on the same ship as MGM president Louis B. Mayer, and by the time she arrived in the United States, she’d negotiated an MGM contract on her own terms. Mayer, impressed with her beauty, recycled (or re-derived) and popularized a label she’d picked up during her European career: “the most beautiful woman in the world.” He also gave her the stage name Hedy Lamarr.

Following her breakout role in the 1938 film Algiers, she quickly gained a reputation as a starlet not much for the Hollywood party circuit. Although she made the required rounds, squired by the likes of Howard Hughes and his contemporaries, she far preferred to spend quiet evenings at home with a drafting table, creating inventions to solve problems that happened to capture her interest. Hughes, on occasion, even loaned her research assistants from his company to work under her direction.

Hedy continued to enjoying increasing notoriety for her film work, but she, along with the rest of the world, couldn’t escape the gloom gathering over her native Europe. Events came to a head in the summer of 1940, when Germany declared unrestricted submarine operations against Great Britain. German U-boats started attacking ships filled with refugees fleeing the air raid campaign against London, and the United States began to adopt a war footing for the conflict that seemed increasingly likely to come. 

Knowing she possessed considerable intelligence about Nazi technology, Hedy became determined to do everything she could to assist what would be the inevitable American war effort. Sensing that a Pentagon debrief of a Hollywood starlet was not likely to happen, she instead set her sights on submitting ideas for new technologies to the National Inventors Council. Patterned after a similar group created by Thomas Edison during the first World War, the NIC was established to solicit ideas with potential military applications from civilians, screen them for merit and forward them to the appropriate offices in the Pentagon.  

Likely motivated by the vicious U-boat attacks, Hedy set her sights on building a better torpedo. Torpedoes of the day were notoriously unreliable, often veering off course or failing to detonate when they reached their targets. By the beginning of the war, the state of the art had advanced enough to allow torpedoes to unspool control wires back to the launching ships, offering some degree of course correction en route to a target. But this was limited by the fragility of the wires, and it was not applicable to torpedoes launched by low-flying airplanes, which would be better able to guide torpedoes in from their higher vantage points.

German scientists, before the war, had been working on better ways to control both torpedoes and steerable aerial glide bombs. Wireless solutions were explored for both, and they were an obvious necessity with the glide bombs. Hedy likely knew of these proposed techniques from the endless client dinners she attended with Mandel, and she focused her efforts on improving wireless torpedo control. 

Wireless communication has a number of advantages over the wired alternative, but there’s one huge disadvantage: everybody gets to both use and listen in on the communication medium (the radio frequency, or RF, spectrum). This makes wireless a comparative free-for-all among contending users, and even worse, it allows for jamming by malicious users. Of course, jamming is a huge problem when it comes to controlling a torpedo heading toward a ship that may be blessed with a jammer. To build a truly useful wireless control system, Hedy had to figure out how to best deal with RF jamming. She hit on a concept that’s beautiful in its simplicity: if an enemy can’t figure out which wireless channel the torpedo and its controller are using, they can’t jam the control signal. And so, she settled on a scheme where the transmitter and receiver randomly hop among their available RF channels, always staying ahead of adversaries’ attempts to jam them. 

Hedy worked with avant garde composer (and self-proclaimed “bad boy of music”) George Antheuil to reduce the idea to practice - that is, to describe its implementation in terms that would allow it to be built. Antheuil had composed for multiple, synchronized player pianos in the past, so he had some idea how to ensure that both the sender and the receiver in Hedy’s scheme were able to synchronize their channel hopping patterns. They applied for and were granted a patent, and they patriotically transferred all patent rights through the NIC to the U.S. Navy... which proceeded to classify the technology and shelve it, unimplemented, for fifteen years.

The Navy resurrected Hedy’s patent in the 1950s, using it as a reference design for a sonar-equipped buoy to be deployed by submarine-hunting airplanes. Since Hedy didn’t use the “Hedy Lamarr” name on the patent, none of the engineers involved in the derivative work had any idea she’d been the original inventor. Over the course of the next two decades, Hedy’s frequency-hopping idea became part of a larger body of work called spread spectrum communication for its increasingly complicated use of broad sets of radio frequencies. By the 1970s, the techniques were declassified, and they entered the commercial world and enabled a wireless revolution. Years earlier, a number of junk frequencies had been set aside for industrial, scientific and medical equipment that generated too much RF noise to make the channels useful for communication. But since this kind of noise is just an unintentional version of Hedy’s original jamming problem, the availability of spread spectrum techniques opened these bands up for useful, unregulated commercial applications - including, by the late 1990s, Wi-Fi. 

Hedy’s ideas finally came full circle in the early 2000s. The proliferation of Wi-Fi and other spread spectrum systems in these unlicensed bands meant that new technologies had to contend with even more interferers than ever. In particular, low-power devices running on batteries had to be robust to RF interference without being overly complicated and power hungry. And so, the designers of Bluetooth turned back to Hedy’s original, elegant frequency hopping idea for the core of their standard. 

The classification of her original patent and decades of intervening sexism meant that Hedy didn’t receive proper recognition for her contribution until many, many years later. In fact, since all the derivative work was also classified, she herself had no idea that she’d helped to spawn such a revolution. By the 1990s, there was a growing movement on the Web to formalize the recognition of  Hedy’s contribution, spearheaded by retired U.S. Army Colonel and early rural Internet access champion Dave Hughes. In 1997, when Hedy was 82, Hughes arranged for her to receive an Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award. She was no longer able to appear in public to receive the award personally, but the recognition meant a great deal to her. Determined to live to see the new millennium, she enjoyed her resurgent fame for another three years before passing away in January, 2000.

The world was content to have Hedy Lamarr play the role of Hollywood glamour girl and do little else, but Hedy had other ideas. Never accepting dismissals of her gender, and not intimidated by her own lack of formal training, she devoted her non-acting life to finding and solving problems through invention. And in the process, she helped kick off a modern communications revolution. Hedy always knew she was more than the sum of her looks and screen presence, and she herself said it best:

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

*This article was originally published in 2013.