Hedy Lamarr: More Than the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

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In 1930, a 16-year-old Austrian woman named Hedwig Kiesler got a note from her mother that allowed her to miss one hour of school. Strong-willed and determined, Hedwig took the note, added a zero to the right of the one, and changed her one hour of absence into 10. Hedy wasn’t skipping school just for fun though, she had a plan: she applied to be a script girl for a local motion picture studio, and not only did she get the job, but she also managed to talk her way into a small part in the film. Her lifelong passion for acting was reinvigorated, and later that year she convinced her parents to allow her to drop out of high school in order to pursue acting full-time.

By the time WWII took shape, Hedy would go on to appear in plays and films throughout the world. She would meet, marry, and escape from an Austrian arms dealer. Hollywood would give her the title of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, as well as the opportunity to star in several blockbuster movies with actors such as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Judy Garland. And by the way, in her spare time she created an invention that would go on to influence technological innovations such as GPS, cellular data, and Wi-Fi.

Hedy’s multidimensional success stemmed from an insatiable ambition that pre-dates her school-skipping days. Her father, Emil Kiesler, played an integral role in her life. He was a loving father who let his daughter play with dolls under his desk, read her stories, and took her on long walks through Vienna. He also recognized her intelligence, and shared his own interest in technology with her by explaining the mechanics of machinery that they saw on their walks, “from printing presses to street cars.” Emil instilled in Hedy a strong sense of self, and the belief that she could do anything she put her mind to. “He made me understand that I must make my own decisions, mold my own character, think my own thoughts,” Hedy said of her father, and this positive message seems to have had a profound effect on her and the way she lived her life.

Paying Attention

Having landed her first acting job at 16, Hedy continued to follow her dreams of acting, and her career continued to soar. She starred in plays and films throughout Europe and had plenty of fans. One of her biggest fans was Fritz Mandl, an arms dealer who at the time was the third-richest man in Austria, and incredibly well-connected. Hedy fell in love with his intellect, and they were married in 1933. But, as Hedy describes, “Almost at once I found that I was no longer Hedy Kiesler, an individual. But I was only the wife of Fritz Mandl.”

For lack of a better phrase, Hedy was Mandl’s trophy wife, whose beauty he relished in showing off at dinner parties. Mandl and his colleagues would discuss weapons deals, innovations in submarines, and remote-controlled torpedo technology in front of Hedy, without a second thought that this beautiful woman was paying any attention to, let alone understanding, what they were sharing. But she was. After all, discussing the mechanics of technology was a big part of Hedy’s relationship with her beloved father.

The Escape to Hollywood

There are theories that Hedy specifically plotted to use the information she had learned from Mandl’s colleagues as leverage against him so that she could escape her unhappy marriage. There are also more fanciful tales that suggest she drugged one of the housemaids, dressed in her clothing, and escaped in the dark of the night. Hedy claimed that revealing the true story of her escape would have put those who helped her at risk, so the exact details remain unclear. What we do know is that Hedy eventually escaped Mandl and made her way to Hollywood where her beauty was so renowned that she quickly earned the title of The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. For better or worse, that title would stay with her for the rest of her life.

She yet again succeeded in acting, but ironically her dream life in Hollywood shared several similarities to her stifled life with Mandl. Hedy again was regarded only for her looks, and was expected to attend parties and to just be beautiful. This time however, she had the freedom to take matters into her own hands. Since show business often allows for long stretches in between films, Hedy began to use this time to invent things. Inspired by her father’s interest in technology in the world around him, Hedy looked to improve the world around her.

Frequency Hopping

At the start of WWII, Hedy turned her inventive mind toward the war effort and began considering the idea of remote-controlled torpedoes as a way to help her newly adopted country. Instead of focusing on the old remote-controlled technology that she heard discussed at Fritz Mandl’s dinner table years ago, which involved wired guidance, Hedy looked forward and began to incorporate the idea of radio control, making the torpedo wireless.

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A diagram from Hedy and George Antheil's patent “illustrating how the course of a torpedo may be changed in accordance with the invention.”

But Hedy didn’t stop there. She realized that if torpedoes could be controlled by radio signals, then enemies could jam those signals by interfering with the specific frequency that was being used. This would render the ability to control the torpedo useless. So she begun to develop a way to thwart this possible frequency jamming. And this is where Hedy made history.

Prior to Hedy’s innovation, the best solution that science had come up with to get around frequency jamming on radio-controlled devices was to choose a different frequency when their current one was jammed, and hope that their opponent didn’t figure it out. Hedy considered, what if both the transmitter (the remote) and the receiver (the torpedo) would periodically switch frequencies based on a pattern that only they knew?

For example, if our opponent was jamming, or interfering with all communication on frequency A, but our torpedo and remote were hopping from A to B to C to D, we would only miss messages while on frequency A. Other than that, our messages would get through just fine.

Once Hedy came up with this idea, which she dubbed “frequency hopping,” she turned to her composer friend George Antheil to help her figure out how to demonstrate its utility. One of Antheil’s more famous avant-garde compositions included synchronizing several player pianos. A player piano has a mechanism to read rolls of paper with holes in it; when the mechanism comes to one of the holes, it knows to play a particular note. Hedy and Antheil used this model of a player piano to demonstrate how frequency hopping could work: the remote control and the torpedo would have a device that could read “ribbons” similar to how a player piano reads a roll of paper. Instead of having instructions with how to play a song, these ribbons would have instructions that told the remote and the torpedo when and to which frequency to hop.

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An illustration from the patent displaying “a plan view of a section of a record strip” that would contain instructions about which frequency the torpedo should hop to next.

Hedy and George filed what came to be called the “Secret Communication System” with the U.S. Patent Office in June of 1941, and it was then passed on to the U.S. Navy. Two months later, there was an attack on Pearl Harbor. And though the patent was inevitably approved, the U.S. Navy refocused their attentions on the World War that had just landed on their soil, while this innovative, yet complicated, torpedo control system fell out of the spotlight.

Hedy and George must have believed that their idea was entirely ignored and forgotten, but it only just seemed that way to the outside world. The U.S. Navy still had access to the patent, and continued to use it as a reference in projects for years to come. Defense contractors just “assumed that it was an existing secret technology, devised by some clever electrical engineer.” They never would have dreamed that it was co-created by the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

The first operational appearance of what was later called Frequency Hopping Spread-Spectrum technology was a communications system developed by the U.S. Navy as to resolve radio interference caused by mountains and other radio-reflective surfaces in the 1960s. It’s important to notice that a jammed radio signal is essentially the same as an accidentally distorted signal due to extraneous noise—the only difference being intent. This idea that Hedy and George had pioneered of a “jam proof” torpedo could actually be applied to “noise proofing” any radio signal.

The realization that frequency hopping could be used to noise-proof any radio signal opened up a world of technological creativity that led to some astounding innovation, such as a system that allowed hundreds of users to securely communicate on mobile devices—a precursor to our modern cellular phones—as well as devices that utilized spread-spectrum principles such as Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi.

All of this was done without any acknowledgement given to Hedy or George, though they did eventually receive recognition for their contribution in 1997 when they were awarded the Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to which Hedy responded, “It’s about time.”

Takeaways

So what can we learn from Hedy’s story?

  • We can be mindful of the fact that innovation can come from anywhere. The Most Beautiful Woman in the World and an avant-garde composer had the ability and determination to change technological history. So let’s remember that all of us are capable of innovating greatness.

  • The messages that we are told, and the ones that we tell ourselves, matter. Hedy’s father instilled in her the belief that she could do anything and be anything. She had the hutzpah to chase down her acting dreams, and then when her newly adopted country needed help, she again had the passion to do more than what was expected of a famous, beautiful woman at the time. On the flip-side however, Hedy was continually told that she was “the most beautiful” and I wonder if that also had an effect on her. Did she internalize the idea that she was only good for being beautiful? What if she were deemed the most interesting woman in the world instead? Or the smartest? Or most innovative? What could have been if she had been reminded more frequently that she was more than just a pretty face?

  • Lastly—as we see with Hedy’s frequency-hopping idea, which was publicly forgotten for decades, but truly ended up being a genius innovation—even if people don’t “get” that something you create is important, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t inspiring.


Sources: Rhodes, Richard. Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Markey, Hedy Kiesler, and George Antheil. Secret Communication System. Patent 2,292,387. 1941. Print.

Elizabeth Engelman, Software Crafter

Elizabeth Engelman is a Software Crafter at 8th Light Chicago who enjoys the collaborative nature of creating software. She likes to tinker her way through problems in iterative ways, whether they're complex software interactions or finding the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies.

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