Hedwid Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria on November 9, 1914. Her father, Emil, was a bank director, and her mother, Gertrud, was a pianist. Hedwig grew up a self-described “enfant terrible.” She was schooled privately, and in her late teens, was schooled at Max Reinhardt’s famous acting school in Berlin. Afterwards, she returned to Vienna and worked in the film industry as a script girl in the early 1930’s, and shortly thereafter began to get small acting parts.
In 1933, Kiesler starred in the Czech film Ecstasy, in which she made the first nude appearance in cinematic history. The film was so controversial that it was banned in many countries, and heavily edited before being seen in others. The actress later claimed that the director, Gustav Machaty, manipulated her into doing the nude scene by changing the script after a substantial portion of the film had been shot. When she objected, he threatened to make her financially responsible for the cost of the work that had already been done. She was young and didn’t know her legal rights, so she agreed to his terms.
Later that year, Kiesler married Fritz Mandl, a man thirty years her senior. He was an arms maker who specialized in shells & grenades, and progressed to the manufacture of military aircraft in the mid 1930’s. He also did research in the field of control systems. He provided arms to Mussolini and Hitler, and Hedy was at odds with the politics of his business. Furthermore, he was extremely possessive. For instance, he tried to buy up every copy of Ecstasy in an effort to hide his beautiful wife’s performance in the notorious film. He was unsuccessful—Hitler kept a copy. Mandl also had Hedy watched and guarded when she was not with him. As a result, when she decided it was time to leave him, she had to drug the maid who was watching her in order to escape to London.
In London, she met Louis B. Mayer of MGM and signed a contract in which she agreed to pay her own way to Hollywood. Her salary would be $125.00 per week for the first six months. Afterwards, if Kiesler proved her worth, her option would be exercised at a higher salary. There was a caveat, though. Mayer wanted her to change her name to detract attention from her role in Ecstasy. So he named her after Barbara La Marr, a film actress from the 1920’s. Hedy Lamarr made her American film debut in Algiers in 1938, which was well received by critics and moviegoers alike. She continued to make films such as Comrade X, Lady of the Tropics, White Cargo, and Sampson and Delilah.
In 1940, Lamarr met an avant-garde composer named George Antheil at a dinner party. In addition to composing film scores, he was also known for writing pieces with names like “Airplane Sonata,” “Sonata Sauvage,” and “Death of Machines.” His “Ballet Meanique” required sixteen player pianos, xylophones, and percussion. It was performed using airplane propellers and a siren during its debut in Paris in 1926. The wind from the propellers nearly blew some of the audience out of their seats! They began talking and struck up an immediate friendship. As she left that evening, she left her phone number on the windshield of his car—in lipstick, of course!
Lamarr had learned a great deal during her tenure as the wife of a munitions manufacturer, and had an idea that she hoped would help the Allies to win the war. The technology already existed to guide torpedoes with radio signals. But it was also a relatively simple matter to jam the signals. She had an idea that she and Anthiel dubbed “frequency hopping.” The idea was to send the signal over a series of 88 random radio frequencies at split-second intervals. Thus, anyone trying to intercept or jam the signal would hear only random noise. Anthiel proposed to use a clockwork mechanism controlled by paper tape, like that of a player piano, in both the transmitter and the receiver. On August 11, 1942, Lamarr and Anthiel were granted patent number 2,292,387 for their “Secret Communication System.” They gave it to the Navy. The Navy considered the mechanism too cumbersome to be implemented. Lamarr continued to try to find a way to raise money for war bonds, so she sold kisses at $50,000 per, and raised $7 million in one evening.
The idea of frequency hopping was abandoned, and Anthiel and Lamarr’s patent expired 17 years later. Three years later, with the invention of the transistor, Sylvania put the idea to use in ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962. Once the use and availability of small and inexpensive computer chips became commonplace, the system was put into use in wireless Internet and cellular transmissions. Lamarr and Anthiel never received a penny for their work, though it is cited as the basis for most spread spectrum technology in use today. Nor did they receive widespread recognition for their invention until the 1990’s. In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation formally acknowledged their invention. Anthiel did not live to see it—he died in 1959. Lamarr, who had retired in Florida, responded with, “It’s about time.”
When looking for biographical information on Hedy Lamarr, one is struck by the often-repeated phrase, “Not just another pretty face.” It is true that Lamarr’s beauty was what made her famous. But it is also evident that she was a person of great fortitude and character. In addition to a film career that spanned more than 25 years, and the patent that she shared with George Anthiel, Hedy Lamarr bore two children and adopted one. In 1966 her biography Ecstasy and Me was published and became a best seller. Lamarr later sued the publisher and ghostwriter, saying that the book was filled with gross distortions and errors. In the 1980’s, Lamarr wrote and performed her own songs in Greenwich Village. In her later years, she retired to Florida, legally blind, and did not go out alone. Hedy Lamarr was found dead in her home on January 19, 2000, at the age of 86.
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