Hedy Lamarr was the one of the most glamourous actress of her day who just happened to pioneer a form of wireless communication that led to Bluetooth and wi-fi.
A new book by Richard Rhodes called Hedy’s Folly charts the incredible story of how a huge Hollywood star helped pave the way wireless technology which we now take for granted.
Sam Kean of Slate makes a good analogy in his review:
“Imagine that, on Sept. 12, 2001, an outraged Angelina Jolie had pulled out a pad of paper and some drafting tools and, all on her own, designed a sophisticated new missile system to attack al-Qaida. Now imagine that the design proved so innovative that it transcended weapons technology, and sparked a revolution in communications technology over the next half-century.”
Slate have also done this video montage:
Rhodes has written a diverse set of non-fiction books, including essays on America, writing itself, the SS, James Audubon and the definitive history The Making of the Atomic Bomb which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
But who was Hedy Lamarr?
She was an Austrian-American actress who became a major star at MGM during their golden age of the 1930s and 1940s.
Her American debut was in Algiers (1938) and amongst her films in this period included Boom Town (1940), White Cargo (1942) and Tortilla Flat (1942).
Incidentally, she bore a remarkable resemblance to Vivien Leigh, the star of arguably MGM’s most iconic film Gone With the Wind (1939).
But it was after leaving MGM in 1945 that she had her biggest success playing Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), which was the biggest hit of that year.
But she was more than just a pretty actress and her life reads like the most outlandish of movies.
After growing up in Vienna, she absorbed a lot of information on long walks with her father and his detailed explanations of how – then modern – technologies like printing presses actually worked.
After an unhappy marriage to an arms manufacturer for the Nazis, she escaped to London after learning that Louie B Mayer of MGM was scouting for actresses.
She then turned down his original offer before getting on the same boat as him back to the US and by the time it docked she had secured a better contract.
In what reads like a real-life super hero(ine) story, she then set about inventing things in her spare time rather than drinking or going to night clubs.
She was obsessed with creative ideas throughout her life: sugary cubes that would mix with water and a “skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion” were just some of those she came up with in between takes.
As a Jewish emigre she was deeply affected when in 1940, Nazi U-boats hunted down and sank a cruise ship evacuating British schoolchildren to Canada.
Seventy-seven children were drowned in the attack.
She decided to do something but instead issuing a press release about world peace through the MGM press office, she sketched out a revolutionary radio guidance system for anti-submarine torpedoes.
Her neighbour, the avant garde composer George Antheil, had already experimented with automated control of musical instruments.
Their ideas contributed to the development of frequency hopping: if you could shift around radio frequencies used to guide torpedoes, then it would make it very difficult for the Nazis to detect or jam them.
They got a patent and then promptly gave it to the US Navy, who were interested but perhaps not too receptive to being outsmarted by a Hollywood actress.
Although others had pioneered the concept, such as Polish engineer Leonard Danilewicz, it was still incredible that an A-list actress and her musican neighbour were doing this as a past-time.
Instead Lamarr was encouraged to use her fame to sell war bonds, raising around $25 million, which is $340 million in today’s money.
(If you’ve seen Flags of Our Fathers, there’s a whole sequence devoted to the war bond efforts, only in that film it involved soldiers from the Battle of Iwo Jima)
However, after the war the Navy did revive the idea when they developed a sonar buoy to detect enemy ships: the basic concept was used to disguise radio signals as they were transmitted from the buoy to aircraft overhead.
But perhaps the lasting legacy is the application of frequency hopping in modern computing technologies.
As the computer revolution gathered pace over time, frequency hopping and Lamarr’s ideas came of age.
Gradually engineers discovered that it could be usefully applied for modern computing devices that use radio frequencies in what is termed “spread-spectrum broadcasting“.
Devices such as mobile phones and wi-fi routers all have to avoid intereference when communicating with one another and use a form of frequency hopping.
The original patent had lapsed after the war but in 1997 the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr an award for her contribution.
Their press release in March 1997 featured this killer line:
“In 1942 Lamarr, once named the “most beautiful woman in the world” and Antheil, dubbed “the bad boy of music” patented the concept of “frequency-hopping” that is now the basis for the spread spectrum radio systems used in the products of over 40 companies manufacturing items ranging from cell phones to wireless networking systems”
So the next time you use a Bluetooth headset or log on to a wi-fi router, think of the actress and the musician who played a part in making it possible.
> Buy Richard Rhodes’ book on Amazon UK and Amazon US
> Richard Rhodes
> Find out more about Hedy Lamarr and Frequency Hopping at Wikipedia
> EFF press release from March 1997