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Monday, November 09, 2015

Hedy Lamarr paved the way for WiFi

Google today is honoring Hedy Lamarr on the 101st anniversary of her birth. I wrote about her in June and am re-posting this profile of her.
She knew Hitler, she knew scandal, and she knew she was bored with the roles she played in Hollywood films, all of which paled compared to her real life adventures. Hedy Lamarr put her brain to work against Hitler and along with composer, pianist and writer George Antheil developed a technique aimed at overcoming the jamming of allied radio-guided missiles by the Nazis. The breakthrough by Lamarr and Antheil led to the development decades later of WiFi.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria, her parents were Jewish although her mother converted to Catholicism later in life. Her father was a successful banker. She was gorgeous -- her mother called her Snow White. In Lamarr's teens, producer Max Reinhardt brought her to Berlin to work in the theater. At 18 she did two things that, combined, caused her trouble.

First, she starred in "Ecstasy," the story of a woman married to an indifferent and older husband who takes a lover. It included a nude scene, which was rare for the time, and a stimulated sex scene. Her apparent orgasm caused a continental controversy in Europe. Pope Pius XI condemned it. No one was willing to show it in the United States.

Next she married  Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy arms merchant. He was an older indifferent husband, who purchased every copy of the film he could to keep others from seeing her nude and having an orgasm. She explained it was simulated sex and that the director applied a safety pin to her butt to achieve the reaction he wanted.

I don't buy it either.

Mandl was Jewish but he was chummy with Hitler and Mussolini, wining and dining them. Lamarr eventually escaped to America by dressing as a maid. Whether she smuggled out her jewelry is more likely than unlikely. She headed for Hollywood, where Louis B. Mayer changed her name to Hedy Lamarr. She was exotic. And bored. And patriotic as fireworks that display a flag in the sky on the Fourth of July. She raised money for war bonds. But that wasn't enough. Already an inventor of an improved traffic signal and a pill that carbonated water, Lamarr and her next door neighbor, Antheil, brainstormed a way to help win World War II.

Nazis could jam radio-controlled torpedoes. They came up with a system that could get around it. Their system involved frequency hopping, which used a piano roll to switch the signal among 88 frequencies -- the 88 keys on a piano. Given that Antheil was a pianist, it made sense.

They received a patent on August 11, 1942, but the Navy was not interested. But 20 years later, the patent went to war in the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. Their idea served as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, which is the basis of WiFi.

Lamarr and Antheil were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014, 14 years after her death.

But she was very much alive when the film "Blazing Saddles" debuted. It included this exchange:
Governor William J. Le Petomane: Thank you, Hedy, thank you.
Hedley Lamarr: It's not Hedy, it's Hedley. Hedley Lamarr.
Governor William J. Le Petomane: What the hell are you worried about? This is 1874. You'll be able to sue her. 
Actually it was 1974 and she did sue. They settled out of court. Never mess with a lady who can outsmart Hitler.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.


  1. "It's Hedly"
    Brooks mentioned that in the DVD he didn't know she was still alive at the time, and gladly paid the settlement. Especially as it was a single lump sum, not tied to profit over time.

  2. It was a funny line, for those who got the reference. I saw Ecstasy on TCM a few years ago; didn't see the problems. Smart woman.

  3. Don,

    Believe you meant "simulated sex scene" instead of "stimulated..." However, sex scenes should always be stimulating.


    1. Thanks. I shall fix. Apparently she was hot in the day. A young Mel Brooks (who later married Anne Bancroft -- another hotty) included her in his film

    2. She was slim, but she WAS a BABE.