Thursday, January 16, 2020

Hedy Lamarr, Cellphones, and World War II

Hedy Lamarr Did More Than Just Act

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr (Everett Collection).
Not everything about wars is bad. Things that many of us use every day were invented in an attempt to win wars. Basic cellular phone technology derives from a wartime effort to control the high seas. While that seems like something that derives from the Vietnam War or later, it actually was patented during World War II. One of the inventors was Hedy Lamarr, a famous actress of the era who understood better than others in the United States the threat posed by the Third Reich because she had emigrated from Europe during the 1930s. Hedy Lamarr helped to invent a communications technology during World War II that has increased in importance ever since.

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr on the cover of Life magazine, 1 June 1942. 

Who Was Hedy Lamarr?

Hedy Lamarr, whose birth name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungarian Empire, to a Jewish family on 9 November 1914. She developed an interest in acting during the 1920s, got her first job as a script girl, and burst into the limelight (under her maiden name Hedy Kiesler) with the Czechoslovakian film "Ecstasy" (1933), which was notable only because of her expressions of ecstasy during sex and some brief nudity. Due to increasing sexual repression in major film industries during the 1930s, "Ecstasy" was one of the last major films to feature any sexual scenes of any kind for many years.

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr in "Ecstasy."
During the same year that director Gustav Machaty released "Ecstasy," Hedy married industrialist Friedrich Mandl, who was a friend of the Hitler and Mussolini regimes despite himself being of part Jewish descent. It was the first of a series of unhappy marriages for Hedy, and she later claimed that he locked her away in a remote castle in Castle Schwarzenau in southern Germany. It was during this marriage that Hedy was exposed to scientists working on advanced technology and how they were converting basic science into applied science. Unexpectedly, Hedy developed an interest of her own in science.

Hedy Lamarr

Not long after her marriage, Hedy tired of Mandl and left him. She later claimed that she disguised herself as her own maid to get out of the castle and flee to Paris. From there, she moved to London in 1937, where she met Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. Taking a big chance, she booked herself onto the same ocean liner on which he was returning to the States and worked her wiles on him. Hedy wound up with a $500 a week studio contract.

This turned out to be the pivotal event in Hedy Lamarr's career. Mayer gave her the stage name "Hedy Lamarr" in honor of silent-screen star Barbara La Marr. She went on to become a huge star in Hollywood, quickly gaining fame in "Algiers" (1938) with Charles Boyer. After that film, Hedy's career was set and she continued headlining major Hollywood films into the late 1950s.

Hedy Lamarr in "Algiers"
Hedy Lamarr in "Algiers."

Hedy Lamarr and Frequency Hopping

Cellphones were not invented until the 1970s, but the basic science underlying them was developed decades earlier. While living in Hollywood, Hedy recalled her days in Mandl's castle, when scientists touting the most advanced technologies came to call. For some reason, their work on torpedoes stuck in her mind. Hedy figured she could use some of that knowledge gained while sitting in on her husband's meetings to help the Allied war effort.

Hedy Lamarr with Clark Gable
Hedy Lamarr with Clark Gable in "Comrade X" (1940).
In 1941, Hedy sought out the inventor George Antheil, a pianist, author, and composer, for other reasons (she was hoping he could enhance her bustline). The two struck it off, and she confided in Antheil her knowledge about advanced torpedoes. Work had stalled on radio-controlled torpedoes because they were easily jammed. This also was an issue in other military areas, such as direction-finding equipment in airplanes, but Hedy was particularly interested in creating guided torpedoes. She thought there might be a way to jumble the signals in such a way to evade jamming.

Why Hedy was so fascinated by torpedoes is unknown. Her family was still in Vienna, and there were many stories about ships being torpedoed by U-boats. It would be dangerous for them to cross even if they could escape the Third Reich. Perhaps she just wanted to make the seas a safer place for everyone.

George, being a composer, was handy with piano rolls. Together, the two worked out a "Secret Communications Systems" which was designed to evade codebreaking. The system changed radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception. Specifically, the signal would randomly alternate between the control center and the torpedo with a range of 88 frequences. Why 88 and not 42 or 97 or 145? Because 88 was the number of keys on a piano! Antheil used a player-piano mechanism to develop the basic sequence of frequency changes.

Hedy Lamarr signature on a patent diagram
Hedy and George signed a diagram for their patent (National Air and Space Museum).
Hedy came up with the idea of constantly changing frequencies, while George figured out a way to implement the idea using his piano rolls. The key to the "special communications system" was that both the control center and the torpedo would have the same code for changing frequencies. Thus, they would switch frequencies together in a way that someone trying to jam them could not follow. This was basic encryption, though it wasn't called that at the type.

Time Magazine cover with Howard Hughes
Hughes on the cover of Time magazine, 19 July 1948 (with the Hughes H-4 Hercules on the background).
Apparently, around this time, Hedy was dating a friend by the name of Howard Hughes. Supposedly, Hughes allowed some of his engineers to help George and Hedy with developing Hedy's idea. Hedy, in turn, later said on personal cassette tapes kept by a reporter but not rediscovered until a documentary filmmaker was preparing a film on her:
I thought the airplanes were too slow. I decided that’s not right. They shouldn’t be square, the wings. So I bought a book of fish, and I bought a book of birds and then used the fastest bird, connected it with the fastest fish. And I drew it together and showed it to Howard Hughes and then he said, ‘You’re a genius.'
So, Hughes and Hedy helped each other. Hedy and George also received assistance from the National Inventors Council, which led to valuable help from an engineer at CalTech.

George Antheil and Hedy Lamarr submitted a patent for the idea together on 10 June 1941. On 11 August 1942, they received U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387.  and submitted it to the Pentagon for development. Hedy used her married name at the time, Hedy Kiesler Markey. Their proposal to the military was that a high-altitude observation plane would steer a radio-controlled torpedo launched at sea level.

Hedy Lamarr discussed in Stars and Stripes
Hedy's invention was not a secret once the war was won. Here is a story about it in military publication Stars and Stripes on 19 November 1945.
Unfortunately, the US military decided that the clockwork implementation as developed by George was too bulky and unreliable and did not use it at the time. Occupied with her film career, which was proceeding very successfully, Hedy allowed the patent to lapse in 1951. And that, as they say, was that - or was it?

The world slowly caught up with George and Hedy's idea. It took the development of new hardware to make their idea truly useful. The patent was used by a contractor in the 1950s that was building a "sonobuoy" (floating submarine detection platform) for the U.S. Navy. In 1957, coincidentally the year Hedy's film career ended, engineers at Sylvania Electronic Systems Division updated George and Hedy's idea and used the newly invented transistor to implement frequency hopping into efficient systems. The technique gained the name "spread-spectrum technology." The US Navy finally began using Sylvania's frequency-hopping system on its ships during the blockade of Cuba in 1962. Nobody really bothered trying to figure out who had developed frequency hopping, so it just became a useful thing with no credit to anyone as its inventor.

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr in "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941). Credit: Everett Collection.
Hedy's career wound down in the 1950s. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States at age 38 on April 10, 1953. Hedy's final film was "The Female Animal" in 1957. After being awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6247 Hollywood Blvd. on February 8, 1960, Hedy began to fade away from the public view. She began a production company in 1946, unusual at the time for a woman, but it ultimately failed and cost Hedy her fortune. She retired to Florida and became a virtual recluse. George Antheil passed away in New York in 1959.

Hedy Lamarr on the cover of Coreldraw 9
Hedy Lamarr's image on a COREL software product.

Hedy is Rediscovered

Frequency hopping turned out to be useful in a lot of ways, and not just for the military. It proved crucial to the development of GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. While some may quibble with exactly how important it was to the development of later technologies, the basic concept became the foundation for virtually all modern wireless communications. Nobody associated Lamarr and Antheil with frequency hopping. That is, nobody did until someone went looking for through old records and stumbled upon the 1942 patent.

Oddly, the technology world began to remember Hedy Lamarr just before her frequency-hopping invention was recognized. An image of Hedy Lamarr drawn using a Corel software won Corel DRAW’s yearly software suite cover design contest in 1996. Beginning in 1997, the boxes of Corel DRAW’s software suites featured a similar large Corel-drawn image of Lamarr. Lamarr sued Corel for using the image without her permission, and Corel countered that she did not own rights to the image. The parties reached an undisclosed settlement in 1998.

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr in 1966 (Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection).
In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, perhaps stimulated by the Corel controversy or perhaps coincidentally, rediscovered George and Hedy's lapsed patent. The Foundation gave Lamarr, still living out her final years in Florida, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. Also in 1997, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a lifetime achievement award in the arts, sciences, business, or invention fields. This was a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed "The Oscar™ of Inventing."

Informed by telephone of her rediscovery in Florida, Hedy simply remarked, "It's about time." She sent taped congratulations for her awards but never left her house. Hedy Lamarr passed away in n Casselberry, Florida on 19 January 2000 at the age of 86, never having profited from her frequency-hopping invention.

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr in her later years.


Recognition of Hedy Lamarr's contribution to modern communications has only grown over time. The first Inventor's Day in Germany was held in her honor on November 9, 2005, on what would have been her 92nd birthday. She and George Antheil were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014. Director Alexandra Dean released the documentary "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story" in 2017, and film and television references to her invention have only increased with time.

Further research has shown that other scientists through the years had come up with variations of frequency hopping before Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil. These included Nikola Tesla in 1900 and 1903 patents, the US Army Signals Corps during World War I, and Blackwell, Martin, and Vernam in a 1920 patent. None of these resulted in practical inventions. Hedy and George certainly were running in some very fast company.

However, just because brilliant visionaries like Tesla also came up with similar ideas does not detract from the achievement of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil. Inventions do not just suddenly appear, they are worked toward over long periods of time and all inventors stand on the shoulders of others before them. Unlike the others, George and Hedy came up with a workable system that, while not adopted at the time due to lack of adequate hardware support, proved the concept and led ultimately to the use of frequency hopping in real-world applications. The development of frequency hopping during World War II by Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil was one of the more enduring legacies of World War II.

Hedy Lamarr


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