Hedy Lamarr

Barrie Blake-Coleman

It isn't often that the creativity found in the performing arts is equally creative in the field of electronic technology.  But this rare occurrence did take place when, in 1941 the very popular screen actress Hedy Lamarr, and the well known avant-garde composer/musician George Antheil, applied for a patent to cover a method of manoeuvring torpedoes by a radio control system which would be impossible to jam or intercept by an enemy.

 

The essential concept was frequency hopping, that is, the rapid and synchronised switching of frequencies between the radio director system and the torpedo through an encrypted sequence. This sequence was to be controlled by two paper rolls, one in the torpedo and one in the director.  The rolls were supposed to turn at a fixed speed through a reader which had punched holes making up a continuous chain of pre-arranged frequencies.

 

Hedy Lamarr was originally Austrian.  Born Maria Eva Kiesler in 1914 she was of good birth but self-willed and 'deserted school for the stage and film studios '.  After making her film debut in 1931 she later became notorious for appearing nude in a scene in the Czech film Extase.

Her parents 'matched' her to a wealthy arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl who was already won over by his having seen Extase.  They were married in 1933.  To avoid embarrassment Mandl tried (unsuccessfully) to buy every known copy of Extase.  Nevertheless, Mandl was extremely proud of his beautiful wife and even took her to his business meetings.  Her social and business life with Mandl took her into the height of Austrian and German society where she quickly became aware of the ever increasing power of Hitler and the Nazi party.  She knew that her husband was a staunch supporter of Hitler and was selling arms to Germany.  She spent nearly four years mixing with senior Axis military and government figures.  Over this time she became more and more disillusioned with her husband's politics, his social circle, and the Nazi doctrine. In late 1936, by this time an ardent anti-Nazi, she fled to London.

 

Having connections in London she came to the notice of Louise B. Mayer, MGM's chief executive, who persuaded her (though she may have 'persuaded' him) that it was a good idea for her to go to Hollywood for a screen test.

 

 There was no contest!  Gorgeous as she was, and a natural actress, she was an instant success with films such as Algiers (1938) and Comrade X (1940) the latter giving her headline stardom.

 

Hedy met George Antheil in Hollywood at a social gathering, and she broached the subject of submarine warfare having mentioned her ex-husbands business operations.  The idea for frequency hopping apparently occurred when they were both sitting at separate piano's, in a game trying to predict which note the other would strike.

 

Lamarr and Antheil gave the US government free access to their patent but their idea was thought unnecessarily complex and it was not pursued.  Nevertheless, by the 1950's the US Navy found the idea more attractive since newly developed computer processors gave the method some viability.  Thereafter, the idea became well established and high speed processors have spread the technique widely from its use in cell phones to un-jammable military communications.

Fritz Mandl

Studio Publicity Shot

Still

from the

notorious and

controversial Extase

George Antheil

Hedy in Algiers