Friday, September 24, 2010

Hedy Lamarr and The Secret Communication System

A typical industry party in the Hollywood Hills is filled with chattering actors and directors, and those who desperately want to break into the business. A beautiful brunette actress, 26,  is introduced by another guest to an avant-garde composer nicknamed "The Bad Boy of Music." Discovering that he is an expert on glands, the actress asks him how she can go about enlarging her breasts. They continue to chat, the subject eventually turning to the war in Europe, and the very real possibility that America will be drawn into the conflict. The composer is impressed that someone so beautiful should actually have a brain. The actress confesses that she has to work twice as hard to convince people that just because she has a pretty face, the upstairs is not empty. The two settle down at the piano inside the house. The composer is again surprised that the actress is also an accomplished musician, able to keep up as he constantly changes the key, turning their duet into a game. To the actress, it seems like serendipity that she came to this party, and that she met this man.

The above scenario is not a scene out of a Hollywood movie, it happened in real life. The woman was Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) and the man composer George Antheil and together they came up with a secret communication system to use against the Nazi's that is the basis of technology that still affects communication systems today. Yes, Hedy Lamarr, the dark and sultry actress who slinked across screens during the 1930's and 1940's in movies like ALGIERS with Charles Boyer, and arguably her most famous film role as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille's SAMSON AND DELILAH with screen hunk Victor Mature. She was called 'The Most Beautiful Woman' in Hollwood but she was overshadowed by other European screen goddesses like Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman. Not many people knew that there was actually a brain behind that beautiful face.

Born Hedwig Kiesler in November of 1914, she was the spoiled, pampered only daughter of a well-to-do Jewish banker and his musician wife. By the time Hedy was 19, she'd studied acting with famed director Max Reinhardt, appeared on stage and made several films including the notorious 'art' film ECSTASY where she not only swam in the nude but also simulated orgasm on screen. Legend has it that her director had to stab her with a pin in order to get the responses that he wanted.

It was her marriage to Fritz Mandl in 1933 that gave Hedy the basic idea for the technology that she and Antheil came up with. Mandl was a shady character, an arms manufacturer thirteen years her senior, who had no moral compass. He would sell arms to pretty much anyone including the Nazis (he spent the war in Argentina becoming a close advisor to Juan Peron.) Mandl was also a control freak who kept Lamarr a virtual prisoner, preventing her from pursuing her acting career.  He basically never let her out of his sight, when she wasn't acting as his hostess, entertaining and dazzling foreign leaders which included Hitler and Mussolini, he was taking her to business meetings with clients. Hedy clearly was paying attention to the conversations between her husband and his clients, particulary that Mandl had been working on a way to control torpedoes by radio. Finally having enough of her sadistic husband, Hedy escaped by drugging her maid and taking her clothes. She made her way to Hollywood where she was offered a contract by Louis B. Mayer and MGM. Mayer changed her last name to Lamarr after the silent film star Barbara Lamarr.

So Hedy's now in Hollywood, making movies for MGM when she meets Antheil. When she and Antheil becan talking, Hedy remembered that her ex- husband had been interested in control systems, and had conducted research in the field, particulary in regard to torpedoes. Some torpedoes were guided by radio signals, but the problem was that enemy ships could hear the radio signals sent from the firing ship, which meant that they could stop the signal from reaching the torpedo. Hedy came up with concept of 'frequency hopping' after their duet on the piano. Just as Antheil had kept changing the key as they played the piano, a ship could simply flip from one radio channel to another, that way the enemy couldn't hear the signal. She also knew that how to help the signal from the ship reach the torpedo's radio. Both radios had to change channels together.

Antheil contribution was to suggest that the device by which this synchronization could be achieved. He had once composed a piece using 16 synchronized player pianos. After working for several months with a professor from the California Institute of Technology who helped them iron out the bugs, they applied for a patent on June 16, 1941. Their invention would use slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls synchronize the frequency changes, it even called for 88 frequencies just like the number of keys on a piano. It also specified that a high-altitude plane could steer the torpedo from above. They received their patent for the 'Secret Communication System' in 1942. However the U.S. Navy never used their idea, concluding that the device would be too bulky to fit into a torpedo. Antheil however insisted that the device could be made small enough to fit into a watch.

Instead of her 'secret communication system,' Hedy's contribution to the war effort ended up being the $7 million dollars she raised selling war bonds in a single evening. Hedy and Antheil never pursued their invention further and by 1959, the patent had expired. However the concept was taken up by engineers at the Sylvania Electronic Systems. The device they came up, which used electronics instead of piano rolls, was installed on the ships that were sent to blockade Cuba during the missile crisis in 1962. Subsequent patents in frequency changing have referred to the Lamarr-Antheil patent as the basis for their work, and their concept lies behind the principal antijamming device used today.

In 1997, Hedy Lamarr received the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Lamarr was clearly a woman ahead of her time. The idea that she came up with along with George Antheil simply had to wait for technology to catch up with it. One has to wonder that if someone other than an actress and a composer had come up with the idea, if would have been taken more seriously at the time.


Barton, Ruth. Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2010.
Gaines, Ann. Hedy Lamarr: Discover the Life of an Inventor. Vero Beach: Rourke Publishing LLC, 2002.


Charlene said...

I like the concept of hidden intelligence and ability. I've always said that the perfect spy would be a frumpy middle aged woman. No one would ever think it was possible she was more than someone's grandmother!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Well, that's the secret of Miss Marple isn't it? Everyone just thinks that she's this little old lady whose a busybody but then she always ends up solving the crime. Hedy had wanted to join the National Inventors Council in Washington but was persuaded not to by Louis B. Mayer which is a shame.

dave hambidge said...

Once again you have thrown a light onto a smashing subject... she was a beauty though?

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Yes, she was! A new biography is coming out tomorrow about her. I may mosey along to Barnes and Noble to hear the author speak since he's going to be showing film clips.

Rob said...

The story of Hedy and George runs and runs - and so it should - it certainly adds glamour to the evolution of some important technology. I wrote a book about them and their invention. If you would like to read more then go to

Bearded Lady said...

Great post. I am in the middle of reading a great book oh her by Stephen Michael Shearer - Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr. I will have to check out those other sources when I am done.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I just saw that book at Barnes and Noble. I'm dying to read it. It seems less academic that the other biography that came out last year. She's pretty interesting.