Underestimating Hedy

How Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr Changed Technology & Communication Forever


When she was 16 years old, she skipped out of school, without telling her parents, and slipped into a studio to apply to be a script girl. When pro- ducers asked her if she knew how to be a script girl, she replied, “No, but may I try?”

“I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no life of its own.” 
— Hedy Lemarr

“No, but may I try?”

soon became a phrase Hedy, con- sciously or unconsciously adopted as her life motto. Her willingness to push herself beyond the social norms of the day was an astounding attribute and would lead to her later success.

Controversial Film

Just before her eighteenth birthday, Hedy landed a role in the controver- sial film, Ekstase, that both helped and haunted her for the rest of her life. Never before had the female figure been exposed in film. Not only was Ekstase shocking due to a brief nude and passionate scene, but also for the fact that the film challenged the traditional patriarchal role in society. Instead of being seduced, Hedy’s character takes on traditional masculine gender roles by aggres- sively seducing the man, and then afterwards, deciding she doesn’t need him.

The blatant feminist influence was perhaps a bit too forward for its day. She soon found landing acting jobs difficult because she was known as the “Ekstase girl,” and thus not taken seriously.

Many attribute the popular turban head covering to Hedy.

Hedy was frequently cast in exotic, minimal speaking roles, which bored her. She liked a good challenge, but she was never given the opportunity.

Never content with the Hollywood lifestyle, Hedy took up inventing as a way to occupy her time.

The Mandl Marriage

Against her parent’s wishes, Hedy married Fritz Mandl, a much older arms manufacturer and the third richest Austrian.

The young Lamarr believed she was in love with the strong, masculine arms dealer. But her perception was soon altered after their marriage when he began abusing her.

Hedy later recalled her unhappy marriage to Mandl, by remarking that she “almost at once I found I was no longer Hedy Kiesler, an individual, but I was only the wife of Fritz Mandl.” (Rhodes 27).

Further issues in their marriage came up when her new husband kept company with controversial powerful leaders such as many of Hitler’s political war henchmen, whom often dined with the Mandl’s in one of their many mansions. As the men would discuss technical and mechanical advances in technology, she would lis- ten intently and soak up the complicated details. Later, this background in technical knowledge would serve a purpose as she designed technology to combat enemy torpedoes. Under- estimated once again, no one sup- posed that a woman of such beauty would also have a brilliant mind.

Manipulative and abusive, Fritz kept Hedy locked in their mansion, for- bidding her from ever acting again. “I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded and imprisoned having no mind, no life of its own.”

Ever the jealous man, Fritz was also obsessed with tracking down every copy of Ekstase so that no one would be able to look at his wife in such a compromising position. He constantly berated her for appearing in such a scandalous film, which he said, made him look like a fool.

The Discovery

With the help of Hollywood composer George Antheil, Lamarr developed a system to rapidly switch frequency channels, a development which laid the groundwork for the complicated communications employed the world over. According to Hedy’s son Anthony Loder, the discovery of this life-changing frequency-hopping theory was inspired by the simple act of playing the piano in tandem. He writes, “Antheil and my mother were sitting at the piano one day and he was hitting some keys and she was following him, and she said, ‘hey look, we’re talking to each other and we’re changing all the time.’” This chance event let loose in the caverns of a fertile mind, revealed to Hedy her true calling.

Being ever-present eye candy in her ex-husband’s dinner parties gave Lamarr access to invaluable information that she would now use in implementing her idea. The famed inventor, Nikola Tesla, had developed radio-controlled torpedoes, but they had a fatal flaw; they were easily jammed, if not controlled by the enemy. Hedy’s idea was to change the frequency at intervals known only to the sender, thereby preventing the “hacking” of the torpedo. If a radio waves and receiver are synchronized to switch signals together, hopping together like the complimentary notes on a piano, then the radio signal passing between them could not be jammed by the enemy.

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

Hedy Lamarr

The Patent

In the patent application dated August 11th 1942, the details of the invention are described as follows: “In a radio communication system comprising a radio transmitter tunable to any one of a plurality of frequencies and radio receiver tunable to anyone of said plurality of frequencies, the method of secret communication be- tween said stations which, comprises simultaneously changing the tuning of the transmitter and receiver ac- cording to an arbitrary, nonrecurring pattern.”

For those of us not as brilliant as Hedy Lamarr, here’s a simple explanation: Imagine a two-lane highway with multiple cars driving along one way together in sync. The exit lanes give the cars the ability to get on and off the highway and on to another highway. Because they are moving in one direction, there is minimal interference, more reliability and more traffic generated. Hedy’s idea created an “expressway” with multiple exit and on ramps for radio frequencies to travel with more reliability and uninhibited by enemy frequencies. This created a more durable, pure signal that was more difficult to intercept. To further this expressway analogy, before Hedy’s idea, the radio frequencies controlling torpedoes were easily manipulated and could often lose signal- akin to being lost in the woods or on a small dirt road. Hedy’s idea created a faster, more reliable network of signals.

Unfortunately, the Navy did not grasp the gravity of Hedy’s ingenious plan and filed the patent away for more than a decade, only to resurrect it in the 1960s to make use of it during the Cuban missile crisis. Had they not underestimated the brilliant Holly- wood star, how many more allied lives would have been saved? It’s impossi- ble to know. In 1997, the world would finally give Hedy the recognition she was due when she was post-humor- ously inducted in the Inventor’s Hall of Fame.

Later Life

After the war, Lamarr continued to make movies, but steadily declined in popularity as more youthful actresses replaced her. In an e ort to combat age and restore her youthful beauty, Hedy succumbed to the lure of plastic surgery, which tragically botched and altered her appearance so much that she was almost unrecognizable and thus remained very secluded towards the end of her life. On January 19, 2000, Lamarr died of heart failure at the age of 85 in Casselberry, Flori- da. Her son, Anthony, scattered her ashes to the wind, deep in the Vienna woods, a true Austrian laid to rest, a fitting metaphor for someone who’s life, even now, rides of a wave of hid- den immortality.

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