"Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid." --Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr defied the Hollywood actress stereotype by co-inventing a communications system for torpedoes that demonstrated a technology that is the basis of much of modern military communications, cellular phones, and Internet access.
Hedy Lamarr was born in Vienna to a banker and concert pianist in 1914 as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. She studied graphic arts at a private school. She dreamed of becoming an actress and in 1932 she got her break by her scandalous lead role in Ecstasy. Following her success as an actress she married Fritz Mandl, a wealthy Viennese munitions manufacturer. Mandl gave her everything she wanted except freedom. He even attempted to buy up every copy of Ecstasy. Despite his restrictive treatment, she was expected to entertain his Nazi weapons customers. It was here that she developed her hatred of Nazis. In 1937 she divorced him and went to London.
In London, Louis Mayer, the second M in MGM Studios, signed her under the condition that she change her scandalous name. This was when she changed her name from Kiesler to Lamarr. During the early 40s Lamarr created a new feminine ideal: the elegant, dark-haired beauty. She became a cultural icon starring in Algiers, The Ziegfield Girls, and Lady of the Tropics. However, she turned down roles in Casablanca and Gaslight. In the mid-1940s her film career slowed although she still starred in a few films such as Samson and Delilah. Her image inspired Catwoman in the original Batman comic book series as well as the CorelDRAW 8 logo. Her career was ended partly by her arrest for shoplifting makeup in 1966. Today she lives a secluded life in Miami, Florida.
Her life was not all about Hollywood. While married to Mandl, she had learned about the need to control torpedoes to improve their efficacy. While at a party in Hollywood, she met George Antheil, an avant garde composer, and discussed her idea of controlling torpedoes with him. A torpedo can't be controlled by a wire trailing behind it because the wire would have to be too long. If the torpedo is controlled by radio, the enemy could simply jam the frequency. So Lamarr proposed "hopping" from one frequency to another continuously. Antheil contributed a way to keep the torpedo and the ship synchronized to hop to the same frequencies using piano player rolls as he had done to synchronize 16 pianos in his Ballet Mechanique. With the help of an electrical engineer, they devised a system of 88 frequencies, the same number of notes a piano has, which the torpedo and the ship would hop between in the same synchronized pattern using a piano player rolls to store the common pattern. They received a patent for their invention, but gave it to the military to help the war effort. Lamarr offered her help in inventing further aids to the military, but was told that she could help the war effort best in Hollywood. It is said that she raised six million dollars in one evening by giving a kiss to everyone who bought a war savings bond. While the invention received some very positive reviews, the military did not develop the technology immediately. Only later did the military recognized the value of frequency hopping and realized that Lamarr had invented it years before. Frequency hopping was used extensively during the Cuban Missile Crisis to maintain secure communications between American ships enforcing the blockade of Cuba. Today spread spectrum communications such as frequency hopping is used in most military and diplomatic communciations as well as the international GSM cellular telephone network.
Hedy Lamarr contributed both to America's cultural heritage and technological advancement. She showed that beauty does not preclude intelligence.