• Exploring American History

American screen siren involved in creation of sonar & cell phones

Born on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (Hedy Lamarr) was the daughter of Emil Kiesler and Gertrud Lichtwitz. A native of Ukraine, her father was a successful bank director who died prior to the Holocaust and her mother, a native of Budapest, was a pianist.

During Hedy’s early teens, producer Max Reinhardt took her to Berlin where her acting career began. Trained in the theater, she later returned to Vienna and made her debut in the film industry, beginning as a script girl and continuing on to become an actress.

In 1933, the first of Hedy’s six marriages took place. Friedrich Mandl was a wealthy Austrian military arms merchant who was accompanied by Hedy to numerous business meetings where he consulted scientists and others actively involved in military technology. During these meetings, Hedy was introduced to the world of applied science where the seeds of her future scientific talent were planted.

Considered to be the third richest man in Austria, Mandl was extremely controlling and made a virtual prisoner of his wife in their castle home. Though half Jewish, Mandl soon developed close relationships with Hitler and Mussolini, who attended some of the lavish parties Mandl threw.

The day finally came when Hedy knew she had to leave. To do so, she used clothing belonging to her maid for a disguise and secretly moved to Paris. It was there Hollywood came calling when she met Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios. Mayer was traveling through Europe scouting for new talent. He offered Hedy a contract at MGM, with the understanding she would first change her name to Hedy Lamarr. His reason for requiring that was two-fold; to hide the reputation she had created for herself in the past and to pay homage to Barbara La Marr, a film star of the silent screen who died from tuberculosis in 1926. In return for her doing so, when she arrived in Hollywood in 1938, Mayer began to promote Hedy as the “world’s most beautiful woman.

Lamarr’s acting career now moved ahead full throttle, beginning in the late 1930s. Numbered among the leading men she worked with during her career were Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart. During the early years of her career, Hedy became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

At the beginning of World War II, Hedy put her celebrity status to work selling war bonds. During her sales campaign, she partnered with a US sailor named Eddie Rhodes. Each time Lamarr attended a war bond event, Rhodes was somewhere in the audience. She picked him out of the crowd and called him up on stage. When he arrived on stage, Lamarr began to flirt with him a bit, then asked the audience if she should kiss him. Positive responses were heard, after which Lamarr stated she would after a certain number of war bonds were purchased. Once that number was reached, Rhodes received his kiss and returned to the audience. Following the rally, Lamarr and Rhodes were off to the next one. One can only wonder how many sailors envied Rhodes’ wartime ‘sacrifices’.

Though she excelled at this task, there was more Hedy wanted to do. She wanted to put her skills in science to work in an effort to defeat Nazism. As Hitler continued his march across Europe, Hedy’s determination to be a contributing source to his defeat intensified. She had learned German submarines were now torpedoing passenger liners and wanted to put an end to their ability to do so.

Between 1940 and 1949, Lamarr starred in 18 films and bore two children. She left MGM in 1945 and starred with Victor Mature in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah. The film became the highest grosser of 1949. When she later tried a different genre and played opposite Bob Hope in the comedy My Favorite Spy in 1951, she soon found her career in decline.

During her years in films, Lamarr’s roles emphasized her beauty rather than her brains and she found the lack of challenges boring. In an effort to relieve the boredom, Lamarr became an inventor. Two of her earliest inventions were big hits. The first involved improving the way traffic lights functioned and the second an instant carbonated beverage. Though she did not consider the beverage very tasteful, it proved to be quite popular when later marketed under the name Alka-Seltzer.

Lamarr’s greatest asset to the scientific world came to be with the help of her neighbor, George Antheil. During World War II, Lamarr wanted to contribute more to the war effort than selling bonds and focused her attention on finding a way to counter the actions of the torpedoes being fired at cruise ships and allied naval vessels from Nazi submarines.

Hedy and George went to work to discover a way the frequencies used to fire radio-controlled torpedoes could be jammed. During the meetings Lamarr attended with her first husband, she had gained a working knowledge of torpedoes and with Antheil, now created a method of frequency hopping.

To accomplish this, they used a piano roll - the music storage medium used in player pianos.

For the untrained eye, the drawing created of the device appeared to be nothing more than a maze of wires and switches; but to someone in the know, it was true genius with the sheer ingenuity being the creation. The piano roll created unpredictable changes in the signal that was sent from the control center to the torpedo in short bursts and offered 88 different frequencies in the spectrum of radio-frequency. The availability of the 88 frequencies made it all but totally impossible for an enemy to scan and jam all of them due to the fact it would require way too much power to accomplish the task. On August 11, 1942, Hedy Kiesler Markey (Lamarr’s married name at that time) and George Antheil were granted U.S. Patent 2,292,387.

Unfortunately, due to stiff opposition from the U.S. Navy, the efforts of Lamarr and Antheil were in vain for that period of history, When the Navy’s brass inspected the invention, their response was, "What, you want to put a player piano in a torpedo? That won't work.” Basically, Lamarr was being told, “You should go raise money for the war instead of this silly inventing.”

As a result, Hedy’s invention was left in mothballs until 1962. That year, the Navy began using her technology on ships during the blockade of Cuba – following the patent’s expiration. The Science Channel broadcast of Dark Matters: Twisted but True on September 7, 2011, explored Lamarr’s invention.

In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil’s efforts were honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation when they received the BULBIEª Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award for their scientific contribution. So vital was their discovery to national defense that government officials originally would not allow publication of its details and classified it in the ‘red hot’ category.

The following year, Wi-LAN Inc of Ottawa, a wireless technology developer, was able to acquire a claim of 49% on Lamarr’s patent for an undisclosed amount of stock. The frequency-hopping idea Antheil and Lamarr created served as the foundation for modern spread-spectrum communication technology – known today as Bluetooth, COFDM (Wi-Fi connections) and CDMA (cordless and wireless telephones).

Hedy Lamarr went into seclusion during the 1970s. Though offered a number of opportunities for work with scripts, TV commercials and stage projects, she turned them all down. In 1974, she filed a $10 million lawsuit due to her name being unlawfully used in the movie Blazing Saddles by Mel Brooks. The case was later settled out of court. With her eyesight failing, Lamarr moved to Miami Beach, Florida in 1981 and retreated from public life. During her final years, Hedy’s only contact with the outside world was through the telephone – even with her children. She was known to be on the phone for upwards of six or seven hours a day, seldom speaking to anyone in person.

Lamarr was involved in another lawsuit in 1996. In this case, CorelDRAW’s Software business offices created a large image of Lamarr with their software. Lamarr sued stating Corel had not acquired her permission to do so. Corel countered stating Lamarr did not own rights to the image. An undisclosed settlement was reached in 1998.

Much more than a silver screen beauty, Hady Lamarr was 85 when she died in Casselberry, Florida on January 19, 2000, from heart problems. That same day, her daughter Denise turned 55. Lamarr’s body was cremated and her son Anthony carried her ashes to Austria and spread them in the Vienna Woods, per his mother’s last request. An honorary grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetery was established in her name in 2014. Denise and Anthony were born during Lamarr’s marriage to her third husband, actor John Loder.

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'Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.'

Hedy Lamarr

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