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No. 435:
Hedy Lamarr, Inventor

Today, we peel away a mask of beauty and find what's under it. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I began my movie-going in the heyday of the old star system. Movie stars had set up housekeeping in the American mind. The men were all strong, handsome, and soft-spoken -- with pomade on their hair. The women were stunningly beautiful. These were man-made people -- icons without counterparts in reality.

hedylamarr.jpgBut somewhere there was a physical reality -- one that was not for us to know. Take the case of Hedy Lamarr: No star was more beautiful than she. She outran even the beauty factory of 1940 Hollywood. Hedy Lamarr came to America from Austria. She'd run away from a bad marriage to an arms maker who had helped to arm armed Mussolini for his invasion of Ethiopia. Her flight to America had also been a flight from the horrors of fascism as well as her marriage.

In 1940 Lamarr met composer George Antheil at a dinner party. They fell to talking. The next evening, she invited him to dinner at her place. A peculiar chemistry had risen between two remarkable minds. They talked far into that night.

Between them, they had an idea. Allied subs, it seems, were wasting torpedoes. Ocean currents and evasive action worked against them. Lamarr and Antheil meant to do something about that. Lamarr, just 26, had been only a girl when she'd listened to her husband talking about torpedoes. She might have looked like pretty wallpaper, but she'd been a quick pupil. And Antheil had done ingenious early work with the technology of modern music.

The solution, they reasoned, was a radio-controlled torpedo. But it would be easy for the enemy to jam a radio-control signal. So they cooked up something called "frequency-hopping." The trick was to set up a sequencer that would rapidly jump both the control signal and its receiver through 88 random frequencies. They patented the system and gave it to the Navy.

The Navy actually did put the system to use, but not in WW-II. Sylvania engineers reinvented it in 1957. The Navy first used frequency-hopping during the 1962 blockade of Cuba. That was three years after the Lamarr/Antheil patent had expired.

In his 1945 autobiography, Antheil gave full credit for the idea to Lamarr. Neither of them ever pushed their case. Lamarr didn't even talk about it. Today, she shrugs and says, without rancor, "I can't understand why there's no acknowledgement, when it's used all over the world."

The 17-year limit on patents does that to a lot of people. But the patent wasn't the point. Hedy Lamarr had stepped out from behind the icon for just a moment. And, when she did, we saw creative flesh and blood that was far more than the stuff of movie stars.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Meeks, F., I Guess They Just Take and Forget About a Person. Forbes, May 14, 1990, pp 136-138.

For more on Lamarr' and on the invention of frequency-hopping, or spread spectrum communications, see