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Hedy Lamarr


Hedy Lamarr

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 9, 1913, the daughter of a banker and his wife.

When she reached her teenage years, Hedy decided to drop out of school and seek her fame as an actress. Her first role was a bit part in the German film Geld auf der Strase (Money on the Street) in 1930. She would appear in three more minor German films before achieving worldwide fame, in the 1932 Czech film Extase. The movie's nude and simulated sex scenes created a worldwide sensation, and caused the film to be banned by the U.S. government.

The notoriety surrounding Extase brought Hedy to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a contract with MGM against his better judgement due to her nude performance. He did insist that she change her last name (to Lamarr, in honor of silent film star Barbara La Marr), and that she agree to make only good, wholesome films. Hedy Lamarr made her U.S. debut in the 1938 film Algiers. This was followed by Lady of the Tropics (1939) and a few other films before she landed the plum role of Tondelayo in the 1942 classic White Cargo.

After World War II, Hedy's career began to decline and MGM decided not to renew her contract. In 1949, she appeared as Delilah opposite Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah. This film proved to be Paramount Studios' biggest movie to that date, earning more than $12 million in box office receipts. More roles followed, but none approached the quality of her other films, and Lamarr would only make six more films between 1949 and 1957, the last being The Female Animal.

Hedy Lamarr published her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, in 1966; she later sued her ghostwriters for allegedly misrepresenting her story. She died in Altamonte Springs, Florida, on January 19, 2000.

Hedy Lamarr, The Inventor

Hedy Lamarr may have been the "most beautiful woman in films," but she was also incredibly intelligent and resourceful.

In 1933, Hedy became the trophy wife of Austrian armament manufacturer Fritz Mandl in a marriage arranged by her parents. Mandl kept her by his side as he attended hundreds of dinners and meetings with arms developers, builders and buyers. But the young Hedy didn't just play the role of gracious hostess, she also listened and learned. After four years of marriage, with Mandl increasingly involved with deals with the Nazis, Hedy knew she must escape. She drugged the maid assigned to guard her, crawled out a window and made her way to London.

In 1941, she met composer George Antheil at a Hollywood party. Known as "the bad boy of music," Antheil composed avant-garde, mechanistic symphonies and ballets. Antheil proved to be Lamarr's intellectual equal, and the two soon began working on an idea that would eventually make today's cellular phone networks possible.

Lamarr and Antheil's patent application

Hedy had sat with her former husband many times as he reviewed films of field tests on torpedo systems, and, with World War II well under way, she began exploring ways to circumvent the jamming that kept the United States from using radio-controlled missiles against the Germans. She and Antheil were sitting at the piano one day and he was hitting some keys and she was following him, when she suddenly realized that they were "talking to each other," and an idea was born.

A simple radio signal sent to control a torpedo was too easy to block. But what if the signal hopped from frequency to frequency at split-second intervals (much like a musical composition constantly changing keys)? Anyone trying to listen in or jam the signal would hear only random noise, like a radio dial being spun. But if both the sender and the receiver were "hopping" in synch, the message would come through loud and clear.

Lamarr had come up with the idea, but it was Antheil, whose compositions had featured up to 14 player pianos playing simultaneously, who came up with the method. The device they came up with used slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls to synchronize the frequency changes in transmitter and receiver, and it even called for exactly eighty-eight frequencies, the number of keys on a piano. Lamarr and Antheil's patent for a "Secret Communication System" was granted on August 11, 1942.

Three years after the patent expired, Lamarr and Antheil's ideas were used in secure military systems installed on U.S. ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962. Neither Lamarr nor Antheil ever received royalty payments for the commercialization of their patent, even though it is cited as the underlying patent for frequency-changing technology -- including the U.S. government's Milstar defense communications satellite system, wireless internet transmission and many of the newer cellular phones.

In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil were honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation with an award for "blazing new trails on the electronic frontiers."

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This page was last updated on 11/08/2017.