The Bluetooth Bombshell
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler dropped into being on 9 November 1914 in Vienna, Austria. If you’re a fan of classic cinema, you might know Kiesler by her stage name, Hedy Lamarr.
Billed by Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, as “the world’s most beautiful woman,” Lamarr found widespread fame during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She starred in 30 films, including Algiers (1938), Boomtown (1940), and, in perhaps her most famous role, Samson and Delilah (1949). She was such an eminent figure that the lead role in Casablanca was written for her; MGM refused to lend her to a rival production company.
She shared screen time with a slew of other legends, including Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Claudette Colbert, Judy Garland, and Lana Turner.
Despite the establishment’s focus on her outward physical resplendence, Hedy Lamarr’s lasting worldwide influence emanated from massive intellect.
From an early age, she displayed a penchant for gadgets and technology. At the age of five, she dismantled a music box and put it back together. From this early point, her father fostered a curiosity in how things worked. Both her parents – her father was a bank director and her mother a concert pianist – had Jewish ancestry. As you might surmise from the timetable of her pictures, this background coincided with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. At least one family member perished in a concentration camp, though the number is likely higher.
Lamarr felt a calling to help the Allies win World War II. She surmised she could best aid the cause through engineering and technology. She attempted to join the National Inventors Council, an organization that directly endeavored to help the military develop tools to win the war. However, the council thought her fame and appeal could make a bigger contribution. Though Lamarr disagreed with the assessment, she obliged in the popular effort. In an astonishing 10 day whirlwind, Lamarr raised $25 million in war bonds. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $350 million. In 10 days!
Lamarr, though, was more interested in torpedoes than bombshells.
In general, she found acting and, especially, her roles to be boring and one-dimensional. She spent her spare time tinkering with ideas and inventions. At one point, she dated the famed aviation maven, Howard Hughes. Hughes was one of the few males of the era not boneheaded enough to discourage Lamarr’s talents. He put his team of scientists and builders at her disposal.
She developed an improved stoplight, a tablet to drop into drinks to carbonate them, a fluorescent dog collar, and methods to improve the entrance and exit of baths for disabled humans. Her major obsession, however, was torpedoes. She had learned that the emerging field of radio-controlled torpedoes had one major flaw: they were easily jammed and rendered useless. Lamarr had a brilliant idea that could help the Allies win the war.
As evidenced by the reaction of the National Inventors Council, getting the powers-that-be to listen to a woman about torpedoes was a massive issue.
The ability to control an explosive with a radio signal is obviously a giant leap forward for warfare. However, if that radio signal’s frequency can be determined by the enemy – a relatively easy feat – the instructions can just as easily be blocked with interference on that frequency. Suddenly, a new threat was immobilized.
Lamarr brilliantly deduced a solution, an insight so profound that it reverberates through electronics, computers, and wireless communication to this day. The notion is called “frequency-hopping spread spectrum.” Basically, the idea is to change the output frequency and the receiver frequency simultaneously so the good guys know where to look for the signal and the bad guys don’t. Even if the enemy stumbles upon the correct frequency, the pattern is set to change so quickly that any interference is short-lived and minimal.
Lamarr took her idea to pianist and engineer George Antheil. Together they developed a device that pulled off frequency hopping with ease. The duo received a patent for the machine in 1942.
Even with a man on board, the Navy did not implement the frequency hopper, despite its incredible applications. In the Navy’s defense, the device was probably ahead of their capabilities of the era, though that nature did not stop the U.S. military from pouring time, money, and resources into other technologies that were beyond their reach (e.g. the Manhattan Project and the atomic bombs). The bigger issue, though, is the Navy was not receptive to help from outside the military, especially from a non-American-born woman. The idea never saw usage during World War II.
The Navy could not deny the majesty of Lamarr’s idea forever. By 1957, they had used it to develop a sonobuoy, a canister dropped into the ocean to track submarines. 20 years after the invention, every American ship involved in the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis featured torpedoes with frequency-hopping technology.
The patent expired in 1959, but Lamarr and Antheil never received a cent in compensation despite the Navy implementing the technology before expiration. Bad enough when a wing of the military uses your idea to great success but never pays you, worse when you think about what came later.
Spread spectrum is the seed from which some of the computer age’s most paradigmatic applications bloomed. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Global Positioning Systems all sprout directly from this idea and technology. The next time you connect your phone to your automobile or jam out on your wireless earbuds, offer thanks to Hedy Lamarr.
Neither Lamarr nor Antheil got rich for their contributions to the American military or the wider world of technology. To this day, few people realize that one of the so-called bombshells of Hollywood is responsible for so many things they use on a daily basis. To my eye, this ignorance is due largely to the lack of opportunities for women in science during the first half of the 20th century and to the predilection to pigeonhole women based on their appearances.
Thankfully, the lack of recognition eventually ended. In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. The same year, Lamarr became the first woman to receive the Spirit of Achievement Award from the “Academy Awards of inventing,” the Invention Convention. In 2014, both were inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (Lamarr died in 2000).
Lamarr is still more famous for her acting roles, but I have a hunch she would have valued her spot in the Inventors Hall of Fame more than the star above.
Hedy Lamarr, well worthy of a spot in the annals of Woman Crush Wednesday!
Further Reading and Exploration
Hedy Lamarr – National Inventors Hall of Fame
Thank This World War II-Era Film Star for Your Wi-Fi – Smithsonian Magazine
Hedy Lamarr: The Incredible Mind Behind Secure WiFi, GPS And Bluetooth – Forbes
Secret Communication System – United States Patent Office
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story – PBS American Masters