“A Mighty Girl Celebrates Engineers Week 2015: Hedy Lamarr is famous as a glamorous movie star from the black-and-white era of film. But what most people don’t know about her is that, in 1942, she co-invented a device that helped make possible the development of GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi technology!

Born in Austria in 1914, the mathematically talented Lamarr moved to the US in 1937 to start a Hollywood career. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, she was considered one of cinema’s leading ladies and made numerous films; however, her passion for engineering is far less known today. Her interest in inventing was such that she set up an engineering room in her house complete with a drafting table and wall of engineering reference books. With the outbreak of World War II, Lamarr wanted to apply her skills to helping the war effort and, motivated by reports of German U-boats sinking ships in the Atlantic, she began investigating ways to improve torpedo technology.

After Lamar met composer George Antheil, who had been experimenting with automated control of musical instruments, together they hit on the idea of "frequency hopping.” At the time, radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be detected and jammed by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control signal, thereby causing the torpedo to go off course. Frequency hopping essentially served to encrypt the control signal because it was impossible for a target to scan and jam all of the frequencies.

Lamarr and Antheil were granted a patent for their invention on August 11, 1942, but the US Navy wasn’t interested in applying their groundbreaking technology until twenty years later when it was used on military ships during a blockade of Cuba in 1962. Lamarr and Antheil’s frequency-hopping concept serves as a basis for the spread-spectrum communication technology used in GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices. Unfortunately, Lamarr’s part in its development has been largely overlooked and her efforts weren’t recognized until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave her an award for her technological contributions. Hedy Lamarr passed away in 2000 at the age of 85.

To introduce young readers 8 to 11 to Lamarr’s fascinating story, check out the graphic novel biography, “Hedy Lamarr and a Secret Communications System,” at

For adult readers, there is also a recent book about her life by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes, “Hedy’s Folly” (“

As seen on the A Mighty Girl Facebook page

Hedy Lamarr was an inventor, pin-up and film actress. She co-developed an early technique for spread spectrum communications which are key in many wireless communications used today, including Wi-Fi.

Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Austria. In the late 1920’s, her acting talents were discovered by producer Max Reinhardt. He took her to Berlin and she trained in the theatre before returning to Vienna. She began work in the film industry, first first as a script girl and then as an actress. At 17 she starred in her first film, a German project called Geld Auf Der Strase. She went on to star in both German and Czechoslavakian films and in 1933 she starred in a sexually charged German film called Exstase (Ecstasy) which brought her to the attention of Hollywood producers. That same year she married her first husband, Friedrich Mandl. It was through Mandl that she was introduced to applied science when accompanying him to business meetings on military technology.

In 1938, after leaving her husband and travelling to the United States, Lamarr signed a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in Hollywood, changing her name from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr. Her first American film, Algiers made her an immediate box-office sensation. She continued to make well-received films throughout the 1930s and 1940s including: Lady of the Tropics (1939); Boom Town (1940); Tortilla Flat (1942) and Samson and Delilah (1949). Lamarr’s roles were designed to play on her beauty and sexuality and were light on dialogue. She had became bored with the lack of challenge and turned her focus to inventing.

At the beginning of World War II, Lamarr initially wanted to join the National Inventors Council but instead was told by NIC member Charles F. Kettering that she should use her celebrity status to sell war bonds. She wanted to use her interest in science to help to defeat the Nazi’s and this only intensified once German submarines began torpedoing passenger liners. Lamarr devoted a room in her house to drafting designs for frequency-hopping in an attempt to counter torpedoes. She worked with the avant-garde composer George Antheil and they used the knowledge Lamarr had gained on torpedoes during her marriage to Mandl. She knew that they could easily be jammed by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control signal, causing the torpedo to go off course.

Together, Lamarr and Antheil began to develop the idea of using frequency hopping to avoid jamming. They used a piano roll to unpredictably change the signal sent between a control center and the torpedo at short bursts within a range of 88 frequencies (there are 88 keys on a piano) in the radio-frequency spectrum. The codes would be held by both the controlling ship and the torpedo. It would be impossible for the enemy to scan and jam all 88 frequencies. In 1942, Lamar and Antheil were granted a patent for their Secret Communication System which allowed classified messages to be sent without fear of interception by enemy personnel. The idea was not implemented until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba after the patent had expired. The system became an important step in the development of technology to maintain the security of both military communications and cellular phones.

Lamarr’s film career declined in the 1950s and her last film was 1958’s The Female Animal. In 1966 she published a best-selling autobiography, Ecstasy and Me. She later sued the publisher for what she saw as errors and distortions written by the book’s ghostwriter. She retreated from public life in 1981 and died at the age of 85 in 2000.

Lamarr recognised for her invention in 1997, when she and Antheil were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. She also became the first female to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered “The Oscars” of inventing. Lamarr and Antheil’s work became the basis for spread-spectrum communication technology like GPS, Bluetooth, COFDM (used in Wi-Fi network connections), and CDMA (used in some cordless and wireless cell phones). Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Sources here, here, here and here

“The Hedy whom we know is not the Hedy you know. You know something which the MGM publicity department has, in all its cunning, dreamed up. There is no such Hedy. They have long ago decided that, in order to give her sufficient sex appeal, they will make her faintly stupid. But Hedy is very very bright. Compared to most Hollywood actresses we know, Hedy is an intellectual giant. I know I’m crabbing the MGM publicity department’s act, but it’s true. Hedy is not much interested in acting, in an actress career. She is a good actress, but she is just not intersted. She is, like ourselves, a dreamer. She is also a sensitive, wonderful human person, one whom we love very much, as you would too if you really knew her!” — George Antheil on his friend Hedy Lamarr.

“Here, then, and at long last must suddenly come the true solution as to why Hedy does not go out upon joyous evening relaxations to which all Hollywood would only too willingly invite her, why her "drawing room,” sure enough, is filled both with unreadable books and very useable drawing boards that look as if they are in constant use. Why apparently she has no time for anybody except something ultra mysterious about which no inside Hollywood columnist has dared to even venture a guess. Believe it or not, Hedy Lamarr stays home nights and invents! I believe it because I know.“

George Antheil on why Hedy Lamarr loved to stay home.


George Antheil would reminisce the first time he met Hedy Lamarr. She had gotten the feedback from big boss Louis B. Mayer and other studio big shots at the MGM lots that she should do something about the size of her breasts. They used to complain that the most beautiful girl in films should have the right phsysique to match her Hollywood persona so she had to do something to enlarge her breasts. She knew who she wanted to talk to about it. 

The famous designer Adrian and his wife were planning a dinner party and had invited George Antheil. Adrian also told him that Hedy wanted to see him to discuss her glands. George was intrigued. On the night of the dinner the following week, Antheil arrived late. 

“They were already sitting at the dining table, one of green onyx splashed with golden silverware,” Antheil wrote in his book. “I sat down and turned my eyes upon Hedy Lamarr. My eyeballs sizzled, but I could not take them away. Here, undoubtedly, was the most beautiful woman on earth. Most movie queens don’t look so good when you see them in the flesh, but this one looked infinitely better than on screen. Her breasts were fine too, real postpituitary.” The conversation began at the dinner table. Antheil glanced down at Hedy’s breasts and was at loss for words. 

 "But your breasts,“ I stuttered. "your breasts…" 

She whipped out a notebook and a pencil. 

"Yes, yes,” she said breathlessly, “my breasts?" 

"The are too small.” (I just said that to lead her on; every movie star wants larger bosoms.) Hedy made another note in her book. 

“Go on,” she said, not unkindly. 

“Well,” I said… “well, they don’t really have to be, you know." 

She made another note, taking some time to do it. The butler took away my untouched hors d'oeuvers. Silence reigned, and I knew more was expected of me. 

"You are a thymocentric, or the anterior-pituitary variety, what I call a ‘prepit-thymus,’” I volunteered. Hedy Lamarr kept on writing for a moment and then said, 

“I know it, I’ve studied your charts in Esquire. Now what I want to know is, what shall I do about it? Adrian says you’re wonderful… the thing is can they be made bigger?" 

"Yes,” I said. “much, much bigger!" 

"Bigger than this-” I was afraid for a moment to look but saw that she did not intend to take off her beautiful Hungarian blouse. She was just thrusting out her chest. 

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” I cried. 

 Hedy left the party before George, and the next day he noticed that she had scrawled with her lipstick her unlisted telephone number on his car window. When he telephoned her, she told him that their discussion the night before had been “most stimulating.” And she invited him over to her Benedict Canyon home for dinner that evening. Dressed in his best suit, Antheil was admittedly nervous. Hedy’s butler served them dinner, and the discussion returned to the quality of Hedy’s breasts. […] 

“By the way,” Antheil asked her. “You can sue me for this, but from where I sit you look about perfect. Why do you want to know all of this?” Her reply was expected. "Oh, just for a friend." 

 They would later invent the basis of wireless communication together, the basis of modern WiFi and Bluetooth. 

Source: George Antheil’s autobiography Bad Boy of Music (1945) & Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Steven Michael Shearer (2010)


Fernand Léger, Ballet Mécanique,1924


Ballet Mécanique (1924) by Fernand Léger and George Antheil

from The Sound of Eye:

“Legend has it that Antheil’s score was technically impossible to execute at the time: among other "oddities”, it demanded sixteen synchronized pianos when there was no technology available to synchronize so many instruments at a time. Antheil rearranged it and added live piano players, but its American première turned out to be a disaster, with riots and all. The score was abandoned and for many decades every attempt to perform it bumped into the problem of synchronizing the pianos. Finally, in the 90s, after the discovery of the complete cut for Ballet Mécanique, Paul Lehrmann used modern MIDI technology to synchronize the piano section, thus “restoring” the score and allowing today’s viewers to watch Ballet Mécanique as it was conceived.“

Happy 99th birthday to Hedy Lamarr, 9th Nov 1914 – 19th Jan 2000.

Lamarr was a superstar actress in Hollywood during the ‘40s, most famous to the world for playing one of the title roles in Samson and Delilah.

But a different, less public part of Lamarr’s life has a deep personal resonance for me. During World War II, she struck up a friendship with the avant garde composer George Antheil. They became interested in a story about radio-guided torpedoes used by the Allies; apparently the Germans had figured out how to jam the radio frequency used for the weapons, thus meaning they missed their targets. Together, Lamarr and Antheil devised a mechanism rather like a player piano drum that would constantly change the controlling frequency. There would be two drums, synchronised between controller and torpedo; thus the torpedo was controlled and yet the Germans could not disrupt the signal.

This was published in 1941 as US Patent 2,292,387, “Secret Communication System”. There was no interest from the military during the war, and the patent languished forgotten until eventually expiring. And yet during the telecommunications boom of the '80s and '90s, this idea of radio communications that moved between different channels – now known as frequency hopping spread spectrum – became absolutely crucial in powering the emerging cellular wireless networks. Without FHSS, there is no LTE, no WiFi, no Bluetooth, no GSM.

A few years after Lamarr died, I started my PhD in Cardiff University. Like most PhDs, this would come to dominate my thoughts over the coming years. My thesis remains the single biggest achievement I’ve ever created by myself, and likely always will be as commercial software engineering projects are rarely that large and never that solitary. The subject of my labours? A new way to design channel allocations on frequency hopping networks. My thesis is a direct descendent of the conversations that Antheil and Lamarr had at Hollywood parties sixty years before.

I’ve read a few quotes from Lamarr over the years. She didn’t seem to mind that she had never benefited commercially from her patent, but I did detect a slight edge of bitterness that her origination of the idea was almost entirely forgotten by history. Eventually this story came to prominence – the EFF gave her a Pioneer Award in 1997. Still, I regard it as a small part of my debt to her and to George Antheil to retell this story any chance I get.

[Further reading: Wikipedia has a similar writeup to mine. I’ve written about this before. You might also like this writeup from the NYT. I must also note for completeness that although Lamarr and Antheil created their scheme from whole cloth, there were earlier innovations that dealt in similar concepts.]


Yes. A thousand times. 


Le Ballet Mécanique
Directed by: Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy
Music by: George Antheil
Cinematography by: Dudley Murphy, Man Ray
Country: France
19 Min.

Part 2

Artículo (sólo en castellano)


George Antheil: Ballet Mechanique, music to an experimental short film from 1924 (film included). Dir. Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy.