"I can excuse everything but boredom. Boring people don't have to stay that way." - Hedy Lamarr
In the summer of 1940, a shipload of children being evacuated to Canada and the United States was torpedoed by German forces. 293 people, including 83 children, were killed. At this time, the German U-Boats were on the verge of winning WWII. It would take a stroke of genius to balance the odds for the British military. This came in the form of frequency hopping. Using this technology, the military could remote access torpedoes on a secure line, preventing enemy efforts from accessing the signals. Due to a lack of understanding and vision, however, this brilliant solution was not utilized.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN THE WORLD...ALSO A GENIUS
"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." - Hedy Lamarr
In 1937 people watched with breathless anticipation as the stunning actress Hedy Lamarr disembarked the SS Normandie and entered the realm of Hollywood royalty. She quickly garnered a reputation as “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Her beauty and talent on screen left an indelible impression on the public. However, her greatest contribution was made by her inventive and visionary genius. After slaving away on the studio lots, instead of joining the social elite, Hedy Lamarr preferred to go home to work on her inventions.
A ROUGH START TO A GREAT PLAN
"All she wants to do is stay home and invent things" - George Antheil
Faced with the struggles of WWII, Hedy wanted to find a way to help combat German forces. In doing so, she along with her good friend, composer George Antheil AKA The Bad Boy of Music, developed the concept of frequency hopping. By using two miniature piano rolls that would start at the same time and turn at the same speed, a ship and a torpedo could secretly communicate on the same pattern frequencies. Ultimately, George and Hedy wanted their torpedo and ship to communicate on 88 different frequencies, like an encryption system that nobody could hack. This was an invaluable yet highly misunderstood technology for the time.
Said George Antheil of the experience: “I went in to see the Navy Brass and they threw the patent on the desk and said, ‘What do you want to do, put a player piano in a torpedo? Get out of here!” Faced with this defeat, the two partners went back to their respective lives, with Hedy unable to shake her disappointment.
THE THING ABOUT PATENTS
It is not uncommon for the original inventors of new technology to go unsung. Unfortunately, this was the case with Hedy and George. In 1955 the U.S. Navy handed their patent to military contractor Romuald Scibor, four years before it was due to expire. By Patent Law, the inventor has up to six years after the expiration to sue for recompense if their patent is used. Hedy and George were sadly unaware of this law. Scibor invented the sonobuoy, a relatively small buoy used in anti-submarine warfare or underwater acoustic research. In using their frequency hopping technology, he was able to secure communication from the sonobuoy in the water to a passing naval airplane. He later attributed his invention to Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil.
By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President Kennedy sent Navy ships to blockade Cuba, the ships that were running the blockade were all equipped with frequency-hopped radios. This gave multiple users the ability to share radio frequencies at the same time without interfering with each other, enabling a continuous switching of frequencies with the users syncing up each time in order to ensure absolute security in communication. This technology was also used in surveillance drones used during the Vietnam war.
A BELATED TRIBUTE
"The brains of people are more interesting that the looks I think" - Hedy Lamarr
In 1990, Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks wrote an article about the actress and the tremendous accomplishments she made off-screen. It was a glimpse into who Hedy really was and the impact she had on the lives of those who came after her. The first to pick up Hedy’s story were those in the field of communications, those who understood exactly how revolutionary her contribution to society was, as her invention was already being utilized in GPS, WIFI technology, Bluetooth and billion-dollar military satellites.
In 1997, Hedy and George received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award, given to those whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences, business, or invention fields have significantly contributed to society.
While she was known for her appearance, the woman within developed the concept of a technology we still use today and will likely continue using for the foreseeable future. It is thanks to this mysterious, brilliant and misunderstood woman that everyone around the world is connected.
To learn more about this fierce individual, explore the materials we have at The Library. These include the documentary based on Fleming Meeks research entitled Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story. Books include Hedy’s Folly: the Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes and the new novel The Only Woman in the Room: a Novel by Marie Benedict. To discover more stories about legendary women like Hedy Lamarr, look to Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World by Rachel Swaby, Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rock the World by Penelope Bagieu, and Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky.
Whitney Taitano, Circulation Desk Attendant