This is the story of how the “most beautiful woman” of her time was also one of the most ingenious inventors of the twentieth century.
Hedy Lamarr—born in 1914 as Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, then capital of the Austrian-Hungarian empire—was a Hollywood actress whose iconic face and demeanor are still familiar even to the younger generations among us, as they became the model for the movie character Catwoman.
Lamarr’s glamorous personality and fame as an actress and seductive femme fatale disguised a most intriguing and little-known feature of her life and personality, that of the brilliant inventive genius!
Her mind, not satisfied with portraying the stereotypical Hollywood seductress, explored ideas of physics and technological applications that put her in league with investor and aviation engineer Howard Hughes.
Her most groundbreaking invention was the “frequency hopper,” a Secret Communication System as the title of her patent granted in 1942 by the U.S. Patent Office defined it. The invention, which she developed with musician and experimental composer George Antheil, allowed for the remote control of warheads and torpedoes that, due to changing frequencies of the controlling radio signals, could not be tracked and neutralized by enemy interception. Antheil had worked with “piano rolls” for mechanical music reproduction; he and Lamarr realized these could serve as a model for creating pre-programmed frequency changes that—when applied to radio signals between the control center and the torpedo—amounted, in effect, to a musically encrypted radio guidance system for remote-controlled “missiles.”
The technology was essentially stolen by the U.S. Navy, which employed it during the Cuban Missile crisis. The same underlying technique of the frequency-hopping spread spectrum is the very foundation for most of our modern-day Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS devices.
This 2017 film by director Alexandra Dean is a superb, touching, and inspiring documentary of Hedy Lamarr and her brilliant invention.
YouTube playlist of excerpts from the film.
Stream the film on Vudu (not available in all regions)
The brilliant mind of Hollywood legend Hedy Lamarr (PBS NewsHour)
Hedy Lamarr – actor, inventor, amateur engineer (The Science Show on ABC Radio, July 5, 2014)
Hedy Lamarr and the Invention of Spread Spectrum Technology: Breaking Barriers in History (group documentary)