Hedy Lamarr was for many years considered the most beautiful woman in the world, an actress who dazzled audiences in the great productions of the so-called “golden age” of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In the 30s and 40s she shared the bill with actors of the stature of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Spencer Tracy and her face was the inspiration for Snow White and Catwoman.
But what few knew at the time was that Lamarr also had a prodigious mind for inventions and some of his discoveries have ended up being key pieces of technologies that we use daily today such as Bluetooth, WiFi or GPS.
Lamarr, born in Austria, was a self-taught inventor. She never had a formal education as an engineer and from a young age she decided that her main career would be film. She attended classes at the Berlin academy of director Max Reinhardt and began acting at the age of 16 under her real name, Hedy Kiesler.
At 18 she had her first major role as the lead in the Czech film Ecstasy , a highly erotic film in which the actress appeared completely naked. Her first marriage temporarily removed her from the screen. She married the Austrian arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl, 30 years her senior and supplier of arms and ammunition to the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy.
Disenchanted by the excess of control she exercised in her life – it was he who forced her to stop acting – and her friendships with Hitler and Mussolini, Kiesler decided to abandon Mandl. She disguised herself as one of the domestic helpers to escape her home and went to London to meet in person the American producer Louis B. Mayer, whom she convinced to give her a contract with MGM. In the US, she changed her surname to Lamarr in honor of the silent film actress Barbara La Marr.
His first US movie, Algiers, was a huge success and made Lamarr one of Hollywood’s best-known and most sought-after stars. In the following years he participated in several blockbusters such as Boom Town or La Dama de los Tópicos .
The outbreak of the Second World War, however, rekindled his interest in engineering. Lamarr had an innate talent for mathematics and physics and enormous creativity in solving complex problems. It was she, for example, who gave Howard Hughes – a great friend and lover – the idea of evolving the design of aircraft wings, adding curves and a more aerodynamic shape inspired by the body of fish and birds.
Lamarr worked on ideas as diverse as new traffic signs or pills to transform water into soft drinks, but his most important invention was a frequency hopping radio transmission system, designed to prevent the torpedo control signal from being interfered with.
It occurred to him during a chat with his Hollywood neighbor, composer George Antheil, in the summer of 1940. The idea of communication through an ever-changing frequency synchronized between sender and receiver had crossed the minds of some inventors and scientists in the past, like Nikola Tesla, but none had been able to create a device capable of making it happen.
Bringing together Antheil’s expertise in using synchronized pianos for his compositions and Lamarr’s mathematical genius, the two created a pianist-reel-like mechanism that synchronized transmitter and receiver changes between 88 frequencies. They submitted their application to the patent office on June 10, 1941, and the patent was granted on August 11, 1942.
Lamarr gave the patent to the US navy in the hope that it would be used to create torpedoes that the Germans would not be able to stop, but army officials concluded that the invention was too bulky to be practical.
Lamarr was ahead of his time. The discovery of transistors in the late 1940s changed things and the updated device in a more compact size was finally used in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Lamarr’s idea of using ever-changing frequencies to avoid interference has ended up being a cornerstone of many of the radio technologies we use today, such as Bluetooth and WiFi connections, which use this technique to avoid interference from other nearby devices. .