Last August, Vanity Fair magazine reported that Israeli movie star Gal Gadot will play the role of Hedy Lamarr in a Showtime series on the life of the legendary Jewish actress. Gadot starred in the movies as Wonder Woman, in 2017.
The Showtime casting director got it right – Hedy Lamarr was a real-world Wonder Woman. In her time she was regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world. She also holds a strong claim to have been the smartest. Her invention, patented in 1942, appears in all our cellphones! Yet few today know who she was.
Who was Hedy Lamarr? And how did she become the only Hollywood superstar inducted (posthumously) into the National Inventors Hall of Fame?
Lamarr passed away 20 years ago, on January 19, 2000. But thanks to a 2017 documentary film about her life, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, written by Alexandra Dean, I am able to reconstruct an interview with her. I would have given a great deal to interview her in real life. What follows is her amazing, and in the end tragic, story:
“I was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914. My father was a bank director, also interested in technology. We used to go for walks and he would explain to me how things worked. Streetcars, trolleys, wires, factories, electricity... I learned to associate invention with him. My father was a wonderful person. I miss him and adored him.
“My mother too was very inventive. She was curious, had an intellectually curious mind, wanted to know how things worked.
“My interest in gadgets started at the age of five, I took an old fashioned music box apart and put it back together again.
“We lived in Vienna, in the 19th District, heavily Jewish. We were wealthy assimilated Jews, common in the Austro-Hungarian empire. My parents took me to the opera and the theater and I was connected with the world of make-believe.
“In a different era, I might have become a scientist. That option was derailed by my beauty… by the time I was a teenager, when I walked into a room, all conversations stopped, and maybe, I was a bit dazzled by the power of my good looks.
“I was an enfant terrible! I lived in a society where there were many prominent women, who had not only incredible careers but loads of lovers, women could have liberties they would not find in bourgeois society. I decided at age 16 that I was ready for the world. I walked into a film studio and within two days I had a walk-on role in a film.
“In early 1933, at age 18, I, Hedy Kiesler, got the lead in Gustav Machaty’s film Ecstasy (Ekstase in German). I played the neglected young wife of an indifferent older man. (Ironic, in light of my marriage soon after to an older man). The film became notorious for showing my face in the throes of an orgasm. I was shown in brief nude scenes, which caused a scandal. The Pope condemned the film. But it won an award and was regarded as an art film. It was banned in the US and by Adolf Hitler in Germany.
“I wanted to do something with my life. I wanted to make my mark. But I was always totally judged by the phrase: One of the most beautiful women in the world.
“I got married when I was 19 to Fritz Mandl, a Jewish munitions tycoon, 33, the Henry Ford of Austria. He had a country house with 25 guest rooms… I loved it. I had a Browning rifle and shot a stag at 350 meters! I’m a good shot! I was Mandl’s armpiece, decoration... my job was to be beautiful and I was bored out of my mind. Mandl was by German measures Jewish. Hitler refused to be seen with him. But Mussolini was a guest in our house. Mandl supplied arms to the German.
“My husband Fritz did not like the effect I had on other men. He was paranoid, he thought I was having an affair. He bought prints of my movie Ekstase and destroyed them. Yes, I had everything, except my freedom!
“By 1937, it was clear that war was inevitable. I was desperate. My father died of a heart attack. That was a turning point – I had to escape.
“Fritz had people watching me. One night, at a dinner party, I got some sleeping powder, made tea, switched cups with the maid, and when the maid fell asleep, I took some jewels, put them in my coat lining, dressed up in the maid’s uniform – and rode off on a bicycle!
“I had friends in England and went there. Pre-war London was a safe haven, I spent months there, to figure out my MGM, next step. I went to the movies and saw Metro Goldwyn Mayer, the roaring lion, in the opening frames! ‘Oh I want to do that!’ I said.
“An American film agent, Louis B. Mayer, stayed in my hotel. He had come to Europe to buy up actresses and actors escaping Nazi Germany. He would enslave them in the MGM empire for a cheap price. He offered me $125 a week. I said ‘sorry, not good enough,’ and walked out.
“Minutes later, I had second thoughts. I booked passage on the Normandy, the ship Mayer was on, to New York City. I cleverly made sure he saw me above the decks, in my bathing suit. The second night after we embarked, I went to my cabin, pulled out my designer gown, put on the last baubles I owned, and walked slowly through the dining room, past L.B. Mayer’s table. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was sitting there, his eyes glued to me…as were the eyes of every man in that dining room. L. B. Mayer knew he had to have me – and I got $500 a week! My screen name? Mayer’s wife was Barbara Lamarr. So I became Hedy Lamarr! I spoke no English, learned a few words on the ship… I was only 22.”
Fast forward. Hedy Lamarr became a star. Charles Boyer sought her as his female lead. Her movie Algiers was a hit. Movie magazines featured her on their covers. Women everywhere copied her hair style, with a part in the middle.
But her private life was sad and tragic.
She chose to marry a screenwriter named Gene Markey. He promised to write scripts for her. But within months, he began dating other actresses. Lamarr was heartbroken. She said, “you never knew if they loved you or loved their fantasy of you… a man does not try to find out what is inside you but only the shape of a nose or the color of an eye.” They divorced in 1941.
Her marriage was failing and her career was in trouble, too. Lamarr was terribly unhappy with MGM, claiming they gave her bad scripts.
At that time, in 1941 and 1942, movie stars were expected to do what the studio wanted. Bette Davis called it a slave system. Stars signed contracts that bound them to studios for seven years. Lamarr said she worked like a “racehorse.”
“Hollywood broke my heart”, she claimed. “They think I am a bad actress.”
All in all, Lamarr was married six times. She found lasting happiness in none of them.
How did she come to discover her path-breaking invention?
In the evening, after a grueling day at the film studio, she did not go to sleep. She had a well-equipped workbench in her home, given to her by Howard Hughes, and she had equipment and tools in the trailer where she rested between takes.
“Anything you want my scientists to do for you,” Hughes told her, “just ask!”
Lamarr told Hughes that the wings on the planes he designed should not be square but swept-back, based on the books she read about birds and fish and their configurations. She invented a tablet that, when dropped into a glass of water, made carbonated soda.
“I don’t have to work on ideas,” she said, “they come naturally”.
In late 1940 German U-boats were sinking Allied shipping. British radio-guided torpedoes used against subs failed, because the enemy jammed the radio frequency so the torpedo could not be accurately aimed. Somehow, a way had to be found to guide torpedoes without the enemy being able to jam the radio frequency. Lamarr had an idea.
Why not change the frequency constantly, in a way that the torpedo was synchronized with the changes? That way, the radio guidance could not be jammed. Frequency hopping! She worked out the idea with a pianist and composer named George Antheil.
Antheil hated the Nazis. His younger brother Henry was an Air Force pilot who was shot down and killed. Georg and Hedy worked together on the problem.
In the middle of the night, Lamarr had an idea. Antheil once composed music for 16 player pianos. A player piano plays without a pianist, using perforated rolls of paper, where the perforations control the keys. If piano rolls can activate pianos, why can’t they do the same for torpedoes and the ships that control them? Why not use an electronic ‘piano roll’ that hops frequencies many times a second, when only the ship and the torpedo have the exact controlling ‘roll’ and play the same ‘note’ that changes every split second? Why not use the same idea that synchronized 16 pianos?
A California Institute of Technology physicist designed the electronic version. US patent 2,292,387 was submitted by Hedy Kiesler Markey and George Antheil in 1941 and approved in 1942.
They decided to donate their idea to the US Navy. Antheil went in to see the Navy brass. He later recounted after he put the patent on their desk and explained the basic idea, they laughed and asked, “Hey, what shall we do, put a player piano in every torpedo?” And that was the end of that.
According to the Scientific American, “Although her ideas were at first ignored, the technology which she and Antheil patented in 1942 was later used by the military – during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, for example – and more recently, it has been employed in wireless technologies like cell phones.”
Lamarr died in Florida; she was 85. Her later years were unhappy and she lived in poverty. In her lifetime, she married and divorced six times. Had she been paid royalties on her invention, she would have earned many millions of dollars. But her technology was widely used long after her patent expired.
Today, frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) is used to send radio signals by rapidly changing the frequency among many such frequencies occupying a band of frequencies (spectrum). It is indispensable for cell phones and is used to avoid interference, to prevent eavesdropping and to enable code-division multiple access (CDMA), widely used in ultra-high-frequency cellular telephone systems.
Hedy Lamarr – the original Wonder Woman.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com