Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, a Jew born in Vienna on 9th November 1914, is better known to the world as the Hollywood actress Hedy Lamar. As a child she was interested in acting and theatre, but she also had a passion for inventing things and at the age of 5 she was able to take apart and rebuild her old-fashioned music box. Her father was a banker who loved Hedy’s intellectual curiosity and interest in technology and would happily spend time explaining to her how things worked. Hedy grew up to be one of the most beautiful women in the world and began her acting career in Europe where at the age 16 she went to a film studio and got a walk on part. The young actress became world famous when she appeared naked in a film called Ecstacy which was banned by Hitler and denounced by the Pope. When she was 19 Hedy married a munitions tycoon, Fritz Mandl, who was allied with the Nazis even though he was Jewish; it was not a happy marriage. By 1937 it was clear that war would be inevitable; Jews were being systematically denied their rights which led to the death of Hedy’s father from stress and worry. Hedy left her husband and escaped to England with her mother where Hedy met the film director Louis B Mayer and went to Hollywood to work for him.
Hedy’s life in America was not easy; she made a range of films from the excellent Algiers to others which are best forgotten, she also struggled to find happiness in her private life. The one constant was her love of inventions, and after filming all day she would work on her latest invention at night. Hedy met and became friend with Howard Hughes who helped here with some of her equipment and offered his scientists to help her with anything she needed. Hedy actually helped Hughes to design the wings for his fastest planes.
Life was hard for Hedy knowing that her country was at war and the US was neutral. Her mother was still in London and planning to go to America which worried Hedy as the Atlantic crossing was incredible dangerous with German U-boats causing havoc amongst
the shipping. Hedy’s creative mind came up with the idea to help those making the Atlantic crossing by improving how radio-controlled torpedos worked. These new torpedos were not particularly effective as the enemy were able to jam their signals and send them off course, Hedy thought that if the launch boat could communicate with the torpedo once it was on its way and make it change direction to follow the target then the German U-boats would no longer have such a great advantage. The problem was how to prevent the enemy from jamming the signals. With a leap of creativity Hedy decided that the ships should constantly change the frequency of the signal to the torpedo in order to confuse the enemy, something she called frequency-hopping. With such a system the enemy would only be able to jam a split second at a single frequency and so the signal would get through. In 1939 a new remote-controlled music radio had been invented by Philco and Hedy realised that this could be the answer she was looking for. Why not hop around frequencies in the same way that you could hop between radio stations, constantly sending the changing signal to the torpedo in a way which would be totally secret. It was a perfect solution but Hedy didn’t know how to put it together.
This is where her friend the composer George Anthiel came in. George came up with the idea which would make Hedy’s concept work using the same system as that used by pianos which play themselves – the rolls activate piano keys so why couldn’t they activate radio frequencies in both the torpedo and the ship? The idea was for two rolls of card with holes in them (similar to those used by the pianos) to start at the same time and run at the same speed so the ship and torpedo could secretly communicate on the same pattern of frequencies; there were 88 frequencies, the number of keys on a piano, and it would be impossible for the enemy to jam these all at the same time as it would require too much power; it would also be almost impossible to crack the system as each pair of rolls could be uniquely created using a random pattern. George and Hedy took their idea to the National Inventors Council in 1941, and the Council put them in touch with a physicist at Cal Tech called Sam Mackeown, who was an expert on electronics. On 11th August 1942, U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey”, Lamarr’s married name at the time. George and Hedy took the invention to the navy but they rejected it, and the US government seized her patent in 1942 as the ‘property of an enemy alien’.
Unable to contribute to the war effort through her invention Hedy, the ‘enemy alien’, worked for the government selling war bonds and sold around $25 million worth (equivalent to around $343 million in todays money), she also spent time entertaining the troops.
After the war Hedy’s acting career was varied, and she never found happiness in her love life. In 1969 she wrote to a friend asking if he could find out what happened to her patent. By this time her idea of frequency hopping had been put into use in military communications – all the US ships used during the Cuban crisis of 1962 used frequency hopping radios. Hedy realised she should have been making money from this but was told that the patent had expired in 1959 before the navy began to use the idea, however there is evidence that they gave the idea to a contractor and it was used long before the expiry date. In about 1955 frequency hopping was used to develop a sonobuoy used by the US navy to detect submarines – once a submarine was detected signals from the sonobuoy were passed to a naval airplane and back to the ship – the system was totally secure, and the developer has even paid tribute to Lamarr’s invention which he used for the sonobuoy, and also for surveillance drones which were developed to be used over Vietnam.
It was not until May 1990 that Forbes magazine became the first member of the mainstream press to write about Hedy’s invention. In 1997 Hedy and George received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the fields of arts, sciences, business, or invention have significantly contributed to society.
Hedy Lamarr died on 19th January 2000, and never lived to see herself and George inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
The Hollywood actress with a love of inventing had come up with an idea which could have given the Allied navies the upper-hand over enemy U-boats and, perhaps, helped to shorten the war. Now, more than 70 years later, Hedy’s invention is used in satellite technology including US nuclear command and control; and you carry it in your pocket too, for GPS, wifi and Bluetooth all owe their origins to the Hollywood actress who often bemoaned the fact that the world knew her for her beauty whilst she believed that brains were always more important than looks.