Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes’s recent release, Hedy’s Folly, chronicles the life and accomplishments of Hedy Lamarr, superstar of the MGM studio films. Her good looks (dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world” by the international cinematic community), and notoriety (performing nude in the German film Ecstasy) have always been the focus of her story. But, rather than perpetuate the same pulp narrative, Rhodes explores Lamarr’s more meaningful contributions, as an scientist and inventor, who’s work not only saved American lives during WWII, but laid foundational research used to create our mobile network technology today.
While ultimately pursuing acting as a career, as a child Lamarr was always fascinated by science. In her teens, she became involved with a German scientist, but upon marrying him, she found him to be rather jealous, disrespectful toward her career choice, and, oh yeah, a Nazi gunrunner and weapons inventor. Her poor relationship with her husband led Hedy to pursue auditions with Louis Mayer of MGM, and escape t0 the US. Yet, that very same relationship gave her opportunity to become familiar with weapons technology, design, and the patent process.
Within a year of her arrival to the United States, Lamarr starred in Algiers opposite Charles Boyer, but between filming blockbusters, she began inventing and writing patents in her Hollywood home. Howard Hughes once sent her a couple of chemists to help synthesize a powder to turn any water into a soft drink (Emergen-C beta release). But after geopolitical hostilities eventually led to a Nazi policy of torpedoing Allied civilian cruise liners, Lamarr felt obligated to invent something to help with torpedo accuracy. Rather than enlisting a traditional scientist, Lamarr partnered with avant-garde composer George Anthiel, who’s articles in Esquire displayed an unorthodox approach to art, philosophy, and science. His most famous composition, “Ballet Mechanique,” not only provoked a riot when it was first performed in 1925, but also featured 16 synchronized player pianos.
Leveraging Anthiel’s experience in piano mechanics and music theory, the two improbable military contractors devised an analog method of synchronizing a radio transmitter and receiver, allowing them to send and receive messages while switching between frequencies. While single frequency signals can easily be targeted and jammed, by constantly switching between a dozen frequencies, torpedoes guided by “spread spectrum frequencies” can accurately hit their intended targets.
While ignored by Naval bureaucrats early in the war, the Navy eventually bought the patent, stamping it classified, in turn keeping Lamarr and Anthiel’s invention away from public acclaim and private innovation. Yet after the expiration of her patent
in 1957, Lamarr’s work would influence inventors and developers, leading to many of the wireless communication technologies found in our computer and mobile devices. Lamarr’s work was finally recognized in 1997, when the actress, then in her early 80s, was presented a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Hedy Lamarr never considered herself a scientist, or an engineer; she preferred to think of herself as an inventor. As Rhodes noted, “She was constantly looking at the world and thinking, ‘Well, how could that be fixed? How could that be improved?'” With her disruptive attitude and a figure that would make Tim Ferriss reconsider the efficacy of the 4-hour body, she was pretty much the paragon of the tech entrepreneur. No doubt.