Hollywood beauty who invented mobile phone: Fact Stranger than Fiction
The extraordinary life of the Hollywood superstar who was also a defense scientist and went on to invent mobile phone technology. Navaratna Rajaram writes more
What would we think today of a novel about a young woman of extraordinary beauty, who lived in an Austrian castle where the movie Sound of Music was later shot, escaped from the Nazis and went to Hollywood where she became a superstar? As if that were not enough, once the war began she went on to invent a wireless communication system for controlling torpedoes and missiles that later became the technology for cell phones and wireless computer networks. We would dismiss it as an absurd melodrama written by a pulp novelist. But that improbable story is the real life story of Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known by her screen name Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy Lamarr is virtually unknown to movie fans today, but in the 40s and the 50s she was one of the superstars of Hollywood. Her Biblical epic Samson and Delilah co-starring the equally forgotten Victor Mature was one of the biggest hits of the era. But she is remembered today less for her movies than for pioneering the technology known as spread spectrum; it is used in a range of applications from missile control to mobile phones and wi-fi networks. Her extraordinary story is the subject of Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhoades, a science historian best known for his authoritative history of the atom bomb The Making of the Atomic Bomb.
Even as a teenager Lamarr was seen as a beauty, and soon hailed as the “most beautiful woman in the world.” It was a label she hated. She felt it led to her being typecast as a siren and prevented her from getting roles where she could display her acting talent. She never gained recognition as an actress rivaling her contemporaries Katherine Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman. “My face is my worst enemy,” she often complained. But as the book Hedy’s Folly shows her own life had more drama than any role that any actress could hope for.
She was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in November 1913, the only child of a wealthy and cultured Jewish parents in Vienna, Austria. Her father was a successful banker but encouraged his daughter’s interest in science for which she showed a precocious talent excelling in mathematics. She may even have been an unrecognized mathematical prodigy; everyone who worked with her commented on her exceptional talent for mathematics. She was also fluent in several languages. From age ten she was taught piano and ballet.
Her extraordinary beauty brought her to the attention of the great German director Max Reinhardt who starred her in major roles in several German films. It was Reinhardt who called her the most beautiful woman in Europe. But what brought her fame (and notoriety) was her supposedly scandalous scenes (for the time) in the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy. Soon she married Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Mandl, a wealthy arms manufacturer much older than her. They lived in a castle in Salzburg (Mozart’s birthplace). It was one of the places where the 1965 musical classic Sound of Music was filmed.
Mandl recognized her scientific talent and took her to his company’s technical meetings where her alert mind absorbed the essentials of modern weaponry. So by the time she was 20, Lamarr had everything— except freedom. Mandl was an extremely jealous husband who kept his young wife a virtual prisoner in his castle. His customers included Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Lamarr saw Mussolini and Hitler at grand parties which Mandl gave. Being Jewish (as was Mandl) she found his dealings with such people highly distasteful.
Life as Mrs. Mandl became impossible for Lamarr and she made several efforts to leave him. Finally, in 1937, she managed to escape to Paris with a large quantity of jewels. There is no reliable account of her escape. The most probable is that she bribed her maid to drug Mandl during a party and made off with a large quantity of jewels. She went to Paris and then to London and from there to America. In London or on the boat to America, accounts vary, she met the famous movie producer Sam Goldwyn who offered roles for her in his productions. She was quite famous by then, thanks to her scandalous film Ecstasy. Soon she was in Hollywood as an established star under the name Hedy Lamarr. It was Goldwyn who suggested the name and also advertised her as the “most beautiful woman in the world.” (Reinhardt had only called her the most beautiful in Europe.)
In an interesting irony, Fritz Mandl himself had to flee his palatial castle when the Nazis took over Austria in a coup known as the Anschluss. He escaped to Argentina just before the Holocaust and started several businesses including an aircraft manufacturing plant. He made several attempts to contact Lamarr in Hollywood, but she wanted to have nothing to do with him. Her father had died just before the Holocaust, and she went to considerable trouble to rescue her mother. She is said to have helped several others escape the Nazis.
Her first important role was as Tondelayo in the 1942 classic White Cargo. It contains what is probably her most famous movie line: “Tondelayo make tiffin”. But her role as well as the movie ran into difficulties with the censors because she played a half-Egyptian half-Arab woman romantically involved with two white men. In the original play on which the movie was based Tondelayo is actually an African black but this inter-racial relationship violated the production code then in place. So her ethnic background was changed to Arab-Egyptian to make it acceptable to the censors. She gave a virtuoso performance as the sultry femme fatale.
Even with the change White Cargo had to overcome numerous objections by the censors before it could be shown. This seems to have temporarily soured Lamarr’s attitude towards Hollywood. Being a Jew she was sensitive to racial stereotyping. This alienation was probably behind her inexplicable decision to turn down lead roles in Casablanca and Gaslight that went on to become film classics. Both went to Ingrid Bergman helping her seal her reputation as the greatest actress of the era. But Lamarr did act in important movies with actors like Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. In 1949 Lamarr starred as Delilah in the hugely successful Samson and Delilah, the role for which she is best remembered.
In her spare time Lamarr occupied herself with inventions. During World War II Lamarr applied to the U.S. National Inventors’ Council (NIC) offering her services as a defense scientist. She was not taken seriously. The NIC chairman Charles Kettering told her she could make a better contribution selling defense bonds. This she did with great success bringing in $7 million at a single event. But she felt she had more to offer to the war effort and continued with her research, focusing on radio control of torpedoes. She saw that torpedoes used by the allies against German submarines lacked accuracy and often missed their target. She set her mind to solving this problem.
Lamarr knew enough science, and what is more, the practical application of it to see that radio signals could be used to guide torpedoes to their target. What is remarkable is that she saw also the key problem with radio control— that the signal frequency could be detected and jammed by the enemy rendering the torpedo ineffective. This shows a thorough grasp of the problem and its practical implications. Her solution to the problem was a stroke of genius— the transmission frequency would be changed at random. She called it frequency hopping. Later it became the basis for spread spectrum communication.
Unlike most amateurs who are happy to have found the answer, Lamarr wanted to turn her idea into something practical in the war against the Nazis. With that as goal she turned to the avant-garde composer George Antheil who had also shown a mechanical turn of mind in controlling 16 pianos in his work the Ballet Mecanique. Lamarr and Antheil went on to patent her invention of radio control by frequency hopping (U.S. Patent Number 2,292,387, awarded under her then married name of Hedy Keisler Markey). They donated it to the war effort.
This shows that to Lamarr science was not just a hobby; few scientists can claim inventions of such importance. She may have been self taught, but she was no dilettante. She did not socialize on the Hollywood circuit, and spent most evenings studying science and working on inventions. She had other invention but none so important. (There may be others we don’t know about.) Her design was not used for nearly two decades; it first saw use was in the 1962 Cuban missile blockade. Now it is used everywhere from missile control to mobile phones and wireless computer networks.
There are several reasons for this delay. To begin with, people, especially influential scientists like Charles Kettering, did not believe that a famous Hollywood beauty who was completely self-taught in science could also have a first rate scientific mind. Next, the electronic technology needed to exploit her idea did not become available for two decades. Her ideas were ahead of her time. I remember attending a NASA conference on spread spectrum communication in Galveston, Texas in the early 1980s where most engineers seemed clueless about the technology. Needless to say, Hedy Lamarr’s name was nowhere mentioned.
Hedy Lamarr has not received her due either as an actress or a scientist though scientists have been more forthcoming in acknowledging her contribution. She is dismissed as an actress— by critics crediting her popularity to her great beauty. Even her biographer Richard Rhoades in his generally sympathetic account writes that while Lamarr had an alert mind she was ‘no intellectual’. So what? Neither was Thomas Alva Edison, an uncouth tobacco-chewing country boy from Ohio. How many ‘intellectuals’ have made any worthwhile inventions? (Only Nicolai Tesla perhaps.)
What is an intellectual anyway? Someone who can endlessly talk about things that matter only to himself (or herself) even though the world has no use for them? Lamarr was an actress of world renown, a pianist, a ballet dancer and a phenomenal linguist. She spoke at least German, French, English, Hungarian, Czech and Italian, with a working knowledge of Polish and Russian. Above all she was an inventor of genius whose invention has affected lives the way few inventions in history have. Imagine life today without the mobile phone or the wireless network. May critics trapped in the pedantry of their own minds find it impossible to face the fact that such a prodigiously gifted woman who was also the “most beautiful woman in the world” could exist. Lamarr was probably right when she said “My face is my worst enemy.”
Science was important to Lamarr. As she said in 1999: “Films have a certain place in a certain time period. Technology is forever.” This shows what her priorities were. And history has proven her right. Lamarr received neither money nor credit for her invention until 1997 when she was finally given the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award. Her son Anthony Loder accepted the award for his mother and played an audio-tape for the audience— the first time she had publicly spoken in over two decades. In another irony that Lamarr’s life is full of, he is the owner of a business that sells phones made possible by his mother’s invention.
When she heard of the award, the 84 year old Lamarr simply said, “It is about time.” She died in January 2000.
Dr. Navaratna Rajaram is a scientist and historian.