Hollywood Starlet Hedy Lamarr Created The Tech That Makes Your Smartphone Work

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” According to film historian Richard Schickel, that’s a quote from Hedy Lamarr who was far from stupid.

From 1940–1950, Hedy Lamarr took Hollywood by storm as a femme fatale. She was discovered by Louis B. Mayer who promoted her as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Before meeting Mayer, she appeared nude in a Czech-Austrian film called The Ecstasy. The sexual intercourse scenes in the 1933 film supposedly earned the disapproval of the Pope and Hitler. Embarrassed, Lamarr’s first husband, Friedrich Mandl tried to buy up as many copies as he could and prevented her from pursuing acting. Unhappy with his controlling nature, she fled to Paris, where she met Mayer. In most of the MGM films Lamarr was given few lines and typecast as a seductress. Discouraged, she started her own production company with producers Hunt Stromberg and Jack Chertok. Lamarr starred opposite of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Bob Hope and worked with Cecil B. Demille and Irwin Allen.

Despite the stardom, it is reported in biographies that Hedy Lamarr was bored with Hollywood. She had dedicated a room in her home for inventing, complete with drafting table and the tools and texts she needed. Among her noted creations is a tablet that would dissolve in water, turning it into a carbonated soda. It was the space age thinking of the day, all your meals in a pill form! I’ve read that Lamarr made an improved traffic light and a better way to dispense facial tissues. Those inventions never went anywhere, but she was recognized by the EFF, the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame and a Google Doodle for bringing us cellular phones and WiFi.

Torpedoes and Spread Spectrum Transmissions

The rumored story reads like a tabloid article, Composer & Expert on Hormones Helps Bombshell Create WiFi. Lamarr went to composer George Antheil because he was a self-proclaimed expert on endocrinology. Hedy was told she needed a bigger bust if she wanted to be more successful in Hollywood (how sad that things like this still happen). Of course, if Antheil knew what he was talking about, I wouldn’t have introduced him as a composer. Seriously, this guy claimed he could determine how attracted a woman was to a man by studying her glands. Antheil wrote articles describing his methods for Esquire and claimed he could change a woman’s appearance manipulating her glands. Crackpot theories aside, he wasn’t completely useless to Lamarr because he had experimented with automation in his Ballet Mécanique, using a number of player pianos.

Hedy was concerned with the war and wanted to do her part. Lamarr’s idea was radio-controlled torpedoes. It’s thought that she had a knowledge of torpedoes thanks to her arms dealer first husband, Mandl. Lamarr and Antheil developed and patented the Secret Communication System, what we now call spread spectrum communication. She knew that radio frequencies were easily jammed and conceived the notion of frequency hopping. Lamarr and Antheil proposed using a paper tape, similar to the piano rolls of player pianos, as the method of automating the frequency changes. The US Navy was not interested in their project, but they classified the patent. Many years later, with better technology, the military dug up the patent and now we use it every day.

Spread spectrum communication is advantageous because of Lamarr’s frequency hopping. As mentioned it’s hard to jam, transmitting on many frequencies looks like noise and not broadcasts to enemies. In addition to looking like background noise, it also won’t interfere with other transmissions. You can talk on your phone at the same time that you’re streaming Netflix over WiFi, for example. Those are 2 technologies that we have thanks to Lamarr. WiFi, Bluetooth and CDMA cellphones use spread spectrum, but Hedy’s patent had expired a few years before the Navy and others put it into modern devices.

Lamarr was still alive to see the Electronic Frontier Foundation honor her for the invention, but her post Hollywood days were far from glamorous. She was accused of shoplifting twice, once in the 60s and another time in the 90s. Lamarr was involved in a number of lawsuits in her later years. She sued Warner Bros. for parodying her in Blazing Saddles. She was married a total of 6 times. Her son, Anthony, said that Lamarr had plastic surgery to revive her career, but it backfired and she looked distorted. In fact, there’s a documentary called Calling Hedy Lamarr because she spent most of her later years on the phone instead of being seen in public.

Hedy Lamarr was a pioneer. She fought against typecasting and society’s view of women by starting a production company. Hedy invented the technology that make our smartphones and WiFi routers work. Yet, she received very little credit for her accomplishments, until recently. When Lamarr couldn’t find respect as an inventor, she tried to, once again turn to acting. When that failed, she receded into herself until she passed away in 2000 at the age of 85. Like a spread spectrum signal, Hedy cast herself into the world in a number of different ways, but very few were listening. The next time you pick up your phone to send a text or snap, take a moment to think of the incredible woman who made it possible.

Image courtesy of US Patent Office