If you're "of a certain age," you probably associate the actress Hedy Lamarr with a series of movies in the 1938-1949 era. The "most beautiful woman in the world," as she was described, was limited to relatively sparse dialogue while she was paired with the most handsome and famous leading men: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Robert Young, and Victor Mature.
Her off-screen life was much different from her screen persona; she married and divorced six times and was a lonely and private person, eschewing the public limelight. Born in Vienna, Austria of Jewish parents in 1914, she married a wealthy Austrian arms manufacturer who counted both Hitler and Mussolini as personal friends. He controlled the young wife (she was much younger) "like I was a doll," she said later, and she fled to Paris dressed as her maid with all her jewelry after an evening out. She met Louis Meyer, the head of MGM studios there and was offered roles in his movies. Her husband's interest in science and munitions rubbed off on her and once in the US, she became a major star, a naturalized citizen, and a patriotic war supporter who worked to sell War Bonds.
Lamarr had the original concept to use "frequency hopping," which changes the frequency used in radio transmissions to make it hard, if not impossible, to listen in, or to interfere with them. The original application was to prevent torpedoes from being jammed by the Germans in WW2. Howard Hughes offered her the technical support of his team of scientists. She teamed with her friend, George Antheil, a composer, to develop a complex system using a miniature piano-player mechanism to change the tone, thus the frequency, of the radio signal. Although this was not incorporated by the US Navy at the time, the idea was implemented in 1962 during the Cuban Missile crisis.
The concept has been refined and is the RF (radio frequency) communication basis for all modern cell phones, WI-FI, and Bluetooth devices. The signals move between different frequencies with what is called "spread-spectrum." The development work by DARPA was licensed by some of the technical experts who worked on the project, and now is the basis for Qualcomm's dominance in the field.
A recently released documentary, "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story," by Zeitgeist Films, focuses on Lamarr's devotion to science and invention, specifically the conception of frequency-hopping. The documentary includes a rare recording from a 1990 interview with Ms. Lamarr, who in her own voice recounts the journey to her groundbreaking discovery.
Lamarr and Antheil both were inducted, posthumously, into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame in 2014. She died in 2000 following a difficult relationship with her son, who left the home at age twelve, and who did not speak with his mother for another fifty years. She attempted significant plastic surgery to reclaim the beauty of her youth, but the results were disastrous and left her nearly disfigured in old age.
J.K. (Jim) George
Author, Reunion and Contact Sport
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