Stars in Blue: Movie Actors in America’s Sea Services

Stars in Blue (book cover)Coauthored with James E. Wise Jr., Naval Institute Press, 1997, Appendix B, Hedy Lamarr, p. 279

Aside from selling a record-breaking seven million dollars’ worth of war bonds in one day, one actress also made a technical contribution, one that at the time would have been expected only from a man. Screen siren Hedy Lamarr was one of two inventors of a communications system that is still in use today in an expanded, more refined form. But during World War II, both the concept and the U.S.-approved patent for the system belonged to Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil.

The daughter of a bank executive, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1914. By age seventeen the future Hedy Lamarr was working at Sascha Studios as a script girl and had already appeared in small roles. Soon the spirited actress moved to Berlin, joining the Austro-German movie crowd. In 1933 she shocked her parents and society by appearing in the silent film Extase, in which she appeared nude in extremely suggestive scenes. Her husband (the first of six), Friedrich A. Mandl, a powerful munitions tycoon, tried to buy up all copies of the film but was unsuccessful, and the film can still be seen today. The scandal drove her from the European screen.

Friedrich Mandl’s young bride, though lavished with every material possession a person could dream of, including gold dishes and a lodge in the Alps, was not happy. Mandl sold arms to the Nazis, but Hedwig hated everything the fascists stood for. After enduring the home atmosphere for three years, she fled to Paris in 1937. There she met American movie czar Louis B. Mayer, who could not help hut notice both her looks and the fact that she had previous acting experience. He offered her a contract with MGM and, sending her off to Hollywood, suggested that she change her name to one probably inspired by silent screen star Barbara La Marr. Thus Hedy Lamarr came to America, and soon afterward she appeared in the successful film Algiers (1938, opposite Charles Boyer).

Two years later Lamarr attended a party at the home of actress Janet Gaynor, where she chatted with George Antheil, the famous composer and pianist. They arranged to meet and talk some more. The result of all this talking would be a collaboration in the development of a secret communications system that the two thought might prove helpful to the Allied cause. There was no notion of monetary reward for their invention; they considered it their patriotic duty. What they created was the concept of frequency-hopping.

Lamarr was not only dazzling physically, she was also very intelligent. While still married to Mandl, she had paid close attention to the endless dinner-table talk about war and weapons; Mandl had provided much not only to the Germans but also to Mussolini, helping him in his African campaigns. Hedwig listened as her husband’s guests described the problems they were having with torpedoes, which were frequently lost during attack exercises. Target ships took evasive maneuvers, and ocean currents were ever-changing. All of this opened up numerous paths for speeding torpedoes. Radio-controlled torpedoes seemed to be the answer, but it was agreed they could too easily be jammed. If Lamarr at that time thought of a way to solve problem, she kept it to herself.

What she and Antheil designed was a system that could be adapted for radio control of a remote device such as a torpedo. By quickly changing the frequencies in synchronization, the potential for unjammable radio-controlled torpedoes could become a reality. During a series of meetings between Lamarr and Antheil, the system was developed and roughly illustrated, and on 10 June 1941 they submitted an application (Serial No. 397,412) for a patent. On 11 August 1942, Lamarr and Antheil were granted U.S. Patent 2,292387 for a “Secret Communication System.” The owners were listed as Hedy Kiesler Markey (she was for a time married to screenwriter Gene Markey) of Los Angeles and George Antheil of Manhattan Beach, California.

Their application explained in detail how the technology worked:

Our system as adapted for radio control of a remote craft, employs a pair of synchronous records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station which change the tuning of the transmitting and the receiving apparatus from time to time, so that without knowledge of the records an enemy would be unable to determine at what frequency a controlling impulse would be sent.

Furthermore, we contemplate employing records of the type used  for many years in player pianos, and which consist of long rolls of paper having perforations variously positioned in a plurality of longitudinal rows along the records. In a conventional player piano record there may be 88 rows of perforations, and in our system such a record would permit the use of 88 different carrier frequencies, from one to another of which both the transmitting and receiving stations would be changed at intervals. Furthermore, records of the type described can be made of substantial length and may be driven slow or fast.

This makes it possible for a pair of records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station, to run for a length of time ample for the remote control of a device such as a torpedo.

The two records may be synchronized by driving them with accurately calibrated constant-speed spring motors, such as are employed for driving clocks and chronometers. However, it is also within the scope of our invention to periodically correct the position of the record at the receiving station by transmitting synchronous impulses from the transmitting station. The use of synchronizing impulses for correcting the phase relation of rotary apparatus at a receiving station is well known and highly developed in the fields of automatic telegraphy and television.

Antheil credited Lamarr entirely with the invention, but his own contribution is impossible to miss. As a composer, he fully understood that synchronizing split-second hops between radio frequencies would no different from synchronizing player pianos. After patenting their discovery, Lamarr and Antheil promptly got back to their careers in the film and music worlds, but the War Department never put their concept to use during the war. It was not until 1962, three years after the Lamarr-Antheil patent had expired—the seventeen-year protection period had run out and not been renewed—that Sylvania implemented the system aboard Navy ships blockading Cuba.

In 1957, engineers at Sylvania’s Electronic System Division in Buffalo, New York, had independently developed the same concept, and the company was granted a series of antijamming communications patents. Today the sophisticated electronically operated device is used in the U.S. Milstar communications satellite system. Lamarr and Antheil received no recognition for their invention for nearly three decades, but later patents in frequency-hopping have made reference to their work as the generic patent.

Following her brief technical foray, Hedy Lamarr made a series of films in the early and mid-1940s that did little to enhance her career. She turned down lucrative roles and in 1945 formed her production company, which fared poorly. Finally, in 1949 Cecil B. de Mille cast her in Samson and Delilah (opposite Victor Mature), bringing her back into the limelight. Other successes followed, such as Canyon (1950), My Favorite Spy (1951), Loves of Three Queens (1954) The Story of Mankind (1957), and The Female Animal (1957). She and George Antheil were finally honored for their invention in March 1997 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. Until then they had never received so much as a thank you, not to mention a monetary return, for their significant technical contribution. And she could use a little extra money to supplement her current income. Still socially vigorous, she lives comfortably, if not lavishly, in Miami on her Screen Actors Guild pension and Social Security. She has three children. [Hedy Lamarr died in 2000.]