Hedy Lamarr, the silver screen siren behind signal switching

The film biography ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ is released in the UK on 8 March, International Women’s Day. Alongside her acting career, Lamarr was a talented inventor, and her solution for guiding torpedoes influenced the wireless communications essential to modern life, including GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

The recent 90th Academy Awards ceremony celebrated the best and brightest talents from across the global film industry. But if any of the Oscar recipients held a patent as well as a golden statuette they kept it quiet on the red carpet. Over 70 years ago one of the silver screen’s most celebrated actors, Hedy Lamarr, was also a patent-holding inventor whose work has had an immeasurable impact on modern life.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Lamarr launched her film career in Berlin before being brought to Hollywood by Louise B. Mayer in 1938. She soon became famous for her roles as an exotic femme fatale in films such as Algiers and Samson and Delilah, often given very few lines. The resulting boredom reputedly led her to start inventing.

Largely self-taught, Lamarr had a table set up in her dressing table where she could work on her ideas, like a tissue disposal attachment for tissue boxes. She dated aviation Howard Hughes who supported her ‘tinkering’ by giving her access to scientists and engineers. When she worked on a cube that could be added to water to make a sparkling drink, Hughes ‘lent her a pair of chemists’, but their contribution couldn’t stop it from tasting like Alka-Seltzer. At the other end of the scale, Lamarr helped Hughes modify his aircraft designs to make them faster, studying the aerodynamics of birds and fish to make the wings more streamlined and efficient.

Spread spectrum pioneer: the invention of a technology vital to the modern world

During World War II, Lamarr helped promote the sale of war bonds, but wanted to do something more practical to help, especially after she heard of the sinking of the transport ship SS City of Benares, which had been carrying 90 child evacuees from the UK to Canada.

She had gained knowledge of torpedoes from her first husband Friedrich Mandl, an Austrian arms manufacturer and prominent fascist, and learnt that the radio signals that control them could be jammed, sending them off course. Lamarr was great friends with avant-garde composer and polymath George Antheil who had developed a method of programming 16 player pianos from a central console. This represented perfectly the idea she had for a synchronised a sender and receiver for torpedoes controlled by frequency-hopping signals that would enable them to avoid enemy jamming.

Lamarr and Mandl jointly submitted patent number US2292387A with Lamarr using her name from her marriage to her second husband, Hedy Kiesler Markey, and it was awarded in 1941. The US Navy never adopted the technology during the course of the war, either due to its reluctance to embrace technology developed outside of the military or its inability to see beyond the use of a piano roll-inspired coded tape. However, in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the Navy started using an updated version of the ‘spread spectrum’ technology on its ships.

The influence of Lamarr and Mandl’s work can be seen today Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, spurring the digital communications technology that forms the backbone of mobile phone networks.

Lamarr’s inventiveness stayed with her until late in life. She proposed a new type of traffic light, a system to help movement-impaired people get out of the bath, a glow-in-the-dark dog collar, a skin-tautening technique and modifications to the design of the Concorde supersonic aircraft.

While she received little recognition in her lifetime beyond her on-screen career, her contribution has become widely appreciated in recent years. In 1997 she and Antheil were awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award, and Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award for inventors.

Lamarr and Antheil were inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014, the year that would have been her 100th birthday. The following year Lamarr’s inventions were celebrated in arguably the best animated Google Doodle of all time.

This International Women’s Day the release of ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ serves as a timely reminder that a woman who was best known in her lifetime for her looks had talent that ran as deep as the torpedoes her invention guided.

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