Women in tech history: Hedy Lamarr — Hitler, Hollywood, and Wi-Fi
This is the sixth article in a series about amazing women in tech history. Previous entries have featured Margaret Hamilton, Grace Hopper, the ENIAC programmers, Katherine Johnson, and the women of Bletchley Park.
Today’s entry is a bit of an anomaly. We’ve covered some inspiring women in this series but most of them aren’t well-known to the general public. This is particularly true for the ENIAC programmers, who were forgotten for most of their lives; and the women of Bletchley Park, who had to keep their life-saving work secret for 30 years. Hedy Lamarr, on the other hand, was a household name in the western world. She was the highest-earning woman in Hollywood at the peak of her acting career and was often described as the most beautiful woman in the world.
Lamarr got her biggest parts in movies because of her looks, which is something she regretted all her life. She became typecast for her glamour and was given few lines compared to the men she starred with. She had a creative and scientific mind and was described as someone who always came up with solutions to problems. Many people in her life didn’t actually know this about her because they made assumptions based on her appearance. Can someone be eye-candy and smart? The sexism of Hollywood drove her to be creative in other fields and she went on to invent technology that has almost certainly influenced your life.
Having Hitler for dinner
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, in 1914. Lamarr began acting at a very young age and small parts in theatre productions as a child. She was eventually spotted as a teenager by German producer Max Reinhardt, who brought her to Germany to train in theatre but she soon entered the film industry. Lamarr was only 18 when she starred in Ecstasy, a controversial 1933 film where she played the ignored wife of a distant husband. This role made her famous in Austria but not necessarily for the best reasons. It was seen as controversial for showing such a young woman naked and faking orgasms.
In 1933, the same year that Ecstasy had brought her so much attention, Lamarr married one of the richest men in Austria: Friedrich Mandl, a munitions manufacturer and merchant. Although half-Jewish, he supplied weapons to Mussolini and had close connections with the Nazis. Together they lived in a huge castle and held parties there with the likes of Mussolini and Hitler. Even by the age of 18 her life was far from ordinary.
According to Lamarr, Mandl was a jealous, controlling man and didn’t want her to continue acting for fear she would star in something like Ecstasy again. She was kept in the castle and described feeling like a prisoner. Most of her social interaction was with fascists as she was forced to accompany Mandl to his business meetings. This was a difficult time for Lamarr but there was a positive to take from it all. Many of the meetings were with military scientists discussing advanced technologies and it fascinated her. This was when she began to focus some of her time and resources in science and apply her natural creativity to fix real problems.
In 1937 Lamarr couldn’t live in that castle any longer but was sure Mandl wouldn’t allow her to leave. According to her autobiography, she disguised herself as a maid and sneaked out. She didn’t just want out of the castle, she wanted to be as far away as possible. She made her way to Paris where she met MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who was scouting for foreign talent. He convinced her to come with him to America to star in Hollywood films.
From 1938 to the late 1950s Lamarr dominated Hollywood. Much to her displeasure in later life, she wasn’t necessarily loved for her acting abilities or personality but for her looks alone. She was seen by many as the world’s most beautiful woman and the marketing directors recognised this so they played into it. Her foreign accent and mysterious stage name only added to the image that made her the pin-up of choice for many soldiers fighting abroad.
Lamarr seemed to have it all. She was rich, famous, and admired. But in many ways she was still a prisoner. Much like she felt trapped by Mandl and his castle, Hollywood trapped her because of her looks. She was increasingly given roles that were highly sexual with very few spoken lines. She became typecast in such a way that she appeared to many as a face rather than a person. She obviously knew there was more to her than eye-candy and this attitude sometimes caused problems with executives.
I was the highest-priced and most important star in Hollywood, but I was “difficult.”
She grew bored and needed another outlet for her creativity. With World War II on everyone’s mind and exciting technological advances happening at the same time, her interest in science was stronger than ever. She wasn’t given the freedom to invent anything on screen so she took to inventing things in the real world.
Lamarr spent years working on inventions, many of which were successful in the fact that they worked but didn’t necessarily go anywhere commercially. These includes improved traffic lights, improved tissue boxes, and even a pill that turned water into a carbonated beverage. She had been interested in torpedoes and radio technologies since her time in Mandl’s castle, hearing scientists talk about the weapons on Nazi U-boats. During World War II, she turned her attention to inventions that could help in the fight.
She knew from those meetings that remote controlled torpedoes weren’t a good option because radio-jamming could protect Nazi boats. As long as you knew the frequency, you could disrupt the signal to the torpedo. She puzzled over ways to protect torpedoes and hit upon a solution when she met the film composer George Antheil. He used strange instruments and arrangements in his music and liked to tinker and invent much as Lamarr did. She was inspired by his use of multiple pianos roles to move music from one piano to another without missing a beat.
Together, they successful patented a genius technology, frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS), which would use the piano roll to protect radiowaves from being jammed. Just as the music could transfer from one piano to another by carefully synchronising the piano rolls, radio signals could be switched to other channels using the same method. By doing these switches in a pseudorandom order known only by the transmitter and receiver, it would be impossible for the Nazis to jam or read the signal. At best they could jam one frequency but the torpedo would only be out of communications briefly until the next frequency hop.
The patent was made on 11 August, 1942, but the Navy turned it down. They didn’t fully appreciate its value, the technology would be difficult to implement, and they were reluctant to use patents that didn’t come from within the military. In the 1950s the technology was taken by engineers at Sylvania Electronics Systems Division for in military communications and by the 1960s an upgraded version was indeed being used to control torpedoes.
It’s all around us
Frequency-hopping spread spectrum is one of the most important aspects of Code division multiple access (CDMA), which is in many technologies we use today. One of its first is in GPS, which you use every time you check your location in your smartphone’s maps app. Mobile phones also used CDMA for phone signals and if you’ve ever downloaded something over a 3G network you were using technology built around Lamarr and Antheil’s invention. With frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology being all around us, it’s easy to take it for granted, but the invention should be admired and respected for being so creative and ingenious.
Despite the work influencing so much technology that dominates our lives, they never received much recognition for the work. Lamarr didn’t receive any money for the use of her patent by the Navy or by phone companies. Like many of the women in tech history we’ve written about, Lamarr was largely ignored for most of her life when it came to science and technology. Now there are a few books about her life and movements to get her recognised. The latest project is a documentary about her life to be filmed by Reframed Pictures. Here’s Susan Sarandon talking about the project and why they need your help to make it a reality:
People started to make the connection between the Hollywood superstar and frequency-hopping in the 1990s. In 1997 she finally received recognition for her work when the the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave her the Pioneer Award. According to her biographer Richard Rhodes:
When they called her up to tell her she would get the award her first words were, Hedy Lamarr being Hedy Lamarr, “Well, it’s about time.”
Lamarr was in her 80s when she received this recognition then died shortly after of heart failure in 2000. In 2014 both co-inventors of the technology were inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Lamarr didn’t think she was necessarily smarter than people around her. Instead, it was her attitude that set her apart. She asked questions. She wanted to improve things. She saw problems and knew they didn’t have to be problems. Some people in her life saw it as the wrong attitude and she was often criticised for being a difficult star. But Lamarr was doing exactly what she wanted to do so was clearly winning. And how did she win? As she said in Popcorn in Paradise:
I win because I learned years ago that scared money always loses. I never care, so I win.
“Scared money” refers to being so afraid of losing that it impairs your decision-making and makes it more likely that you will lose. Lamarr was able to let that go. She had the world’s eyes on her just waiting for a mistake yet she made it in Hollywood and when that didn’t appeal anymore she contributed to technology you’re probably using while reading this. She was beautiful and she was smart and she was talented but none of that guaranteed success in male-dominated fields. More importantly: she wasn’t afraid.
Lamarr faced sexism like all the women in this series but in arguably more unusual circumstances. She wasn’t just a woman in tech; she was also a superstar admired for her beauty. According to Lamarr, this meant she faced two very different sides of misogyny. Some people assumed, from looks alone, that she wasn’t smart. Others assumed that if she was smart then it was a negative aspect of her personality. Her smarts were likely a devious, deceptive, untrustworthy intelligence and this was a problem rarely said about attractive male leads. Sometimes you just can’t win, except she eventually did. She won because scared money always loses and she wasn’t afraid to be herself.