Thank This World War II-Era Film Star for Your Wi-Fi

As the National Portrait Gallery acquires a film poster of Hedy Lamarr, it’s worth reflecting on her double life as an actress and a pioneering inventor

I Cospiratori, detail
The Italian poster was created for Lamarr's 1946 World War II film, I Conspiratori (The Conspirators). Her image reflects the allure that led to her being called the “most beautiful woman in the world.” I Cospiratori (detail) by Luigi Martinati, c. 1940, National Portrait Gallery

Throughout her life, the Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr, known in the 1930s and 1940s for her smoldering performances on the silver screen, had complicated feelings about her gorgeous face. Her unparalleled beauty had made her the inspiration for two immortal cartoon beauties—Snow White and Catwoman—and in the 1940s, plastic surgery patients requested her profile more than any other. She would often claim that outward appearances were unimportant to her, but later in life, she became a repeated plastic surgery patient herself. She couldn’t bear to see her beauty fade.

That beauty is elegantly reproduced in a new acquisition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery honoring the actress. This Italian poster was created for her World War II film, Conspiratori (The Conspirators). Her image reflects the allure that led to her being called the “most beautiful woman in the world.”

However, there was much more to Hedy Lamarr than her stunning dark locks, translucent fair skin and sparkling green eyes. She was an ingenious inventor who planted a seed that would blossom into some of today’s most ubiquitous technology, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, cordless phones and cell phones. Her inventions were a part of a complicated life filled with contradictions and elusive truths that were not part of her film star persona.

Lamarr’s interest in invention had begun at age 5, when she dismantled a music box and reassembled it, and she never relinquished her curiosity. As an inventor, she worked with a partner—an eccentric composer named George Antheil. The pair worked mostly behind closed doors, and because Lamarr’s ghost-written autobiography doesn’t mention her inventions, further insights into her approach to the work are sadly missing. But inventor Carmelo “Nino” Amarena recalled speaking with Lamarr in 1997. “We talked like two engineers on a hot project,” Amarena said. “I never felt I was talking to a movie star, but to a fellow inventor.”

Hedy Lamarr
Disdaining the celebrity lifestyle, Hedy Lamarr concluded that “any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Wikimedia Commons

Lamarr made her great breakthrough in the early years of World War II when trying to invent a device to block enemy ships from jamming torpedo guidance signals. No one knows what prompted the idea, but Antheil confirmed that it was Lamarr’s design, from which he created a practical model. They found a way for the radio guidance transmitter and the torpedo’s receiver to jump simultaneously from frequency to frequency, making it impossible for the enemy to locate and block a message before it had moved to another frequency. This approach became known as “frequency hopping.”

However, when Lamarr and Antheil offered their creation to the U.S. Navy, engineers rejected it, saying it was too cumbersome. During the mid-1950s, with the availability of lightweight transistors, the Navy shared Lamarr’s concept with a contractor assigned to create a sonobuoy, which could be dropped into the water from an airplane to detect submarines. That contractor and others over the years used Lamarr’s design as a springboard to bigger ideas. Although the patent belonging to Lamarr and Antheil did not expire until 1959, they never received compensation for use of their concept. In 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, all U.S. ships on a blockade line around Cuba were armed with torpedoes guided by a “frequency-hopping” system.

Lamarr, who was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna, later would deny her ancestry—even to her own children. Antheil’s memoir, Bad Boy of Music, reports that she initiated their effort to invent weapons for the Allies because “she did not feel comfortable sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state.” She often expressed contempt for the Nazis, some of whom had dined at her table when she was married to an Austrian munitions manufacturer, Fritz Mandl. She remembered that the Germans and other potential buyers discussed secret weapons at her home, but it is unclear whether she had access to these conversations. Among those who entered her home was Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. She later claimed that Adolf Hitler dined in her house—an assertion that is not accepted by her biographers because both she and her husband were Jews, which was why lower-ranking Nazis visited them at home rather than meeting in a more public place. She contended that her husband often consulted her about new weapons, and it is possible that these conversations sparked her interest in creating weaponry. Some have asserted that she stole the idea of “frequency hopping” from Mandl or his guests, but she denied it and no German weapons used the design.

I Cospiratori
Italian poster artist Luigi Martinati, creator of the artwork, was known for "out-glamorizing Hollywood glamor," says Asleson. National Portrait Gallery

Though years away from getting her U.S. citizenship, Lamarr also played a public role in bolstering the war effort by traveling to 16 cities in 10 days to sell $25 million in war bonds. She also started an MGM letter-writing campaign that generated 2,144 letters to servicemen and appeared at the Hollywood Canteen, where she signed autographs for off-duty GI Joes.

Many Americans knew about Lamarr’s six marriages, but few realized that she had the intelligence to be an inventor. Her patent on “frequency hopping” had expired before widespread implementation of the idea, but she lived long enough to see her brainstorm begin expanding into a vast industry late in the 20th century. In 1997, her work received recognition when she was honored with the Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Although she never made money from any of her inventions, “frequency hopping” alone is estimated to be worth $30 billion. Frequency hopping is often a component of wireless communication systems that allows more users to communicate simultaneously with less signal interference. Multiple signals can employ the same frequency, and if the signal fails or is obstructed, it hops to another one.

“Since Lamarr and Antheil’s groundbreaking work in frequency hopping,” Joyce Bedi of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation points out, “many other applications of spread spectrum technology—the broader term for wireless communications using variable signals—have arisen, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS.”

Capturing both her beauty and her strong connection to World War II, the newly acquired poster at the National Portrait Gallery shows her costar, Paul Henreid, preparing to kiss her. Artist Luigi Martinati’s portrait created a fresh image of the film’s stars rather than simply reproducing a photograph. The image, based on a publicity photo, injected “a lot of additional passion and sultriness,” says Robyn Asleson, assistant curator of prints, drawings and media arts. “In the poster, her dark hair cascades behind her, and Paul Henreid is catching some of it between his fingers as he cradles the back of her head in his hand," says Asleson, noting that while Lamarr is fully realized in rich color, the artist hasn't bothered to fully color in Henreid's neck or the back of his hair.

Hollywood films were unavailable in Italy while the Fascists and the Nazis held that nation in their grip, but Conspiratori did reach Italian audiences later. The film, inspired by the success of Casablanca, told the story of a Dutch freedom fighter and underground conspirators in Portugal. Ironically, Lamarr had been offered the leading female role in Casablanca and had turned it down, according to her autobiography. The Conspirators “is World War II propaganda about these horrible Nazis and these wonderful people fighting for freedom who sacrifice their love in order to pursue patriotism,” says Asleson. “Most of the people in it are not American. They’re emigrés who came to Hollywood, escaping fascism and whatever else was going on in Europe.”

Lamarr began her acting career as a teenager in Austria under her own name, Hedwig Kiesler. Her first major film, 1933’s Ekstase, created a stir internationally because it featured nudity, and in one scene, Lamarr simulated an orgasm. It was so scandalous that her first husband Fritz Mandl tried to buy all copies of the film and destroy them. Mandl often subjected Lamarr to verbal abuse, and his intense jealousy circumscribed her life and limited her freedom. The couple divorced in 1937, and Lamarr moved to Hollywood the same year to work at MGM under her new screen name.

She made dozens of Hollywood films between 1938 and 1958. Algiers (1938), Boomtown (1940) and Samson and Delilah (1949) were her biggest films. In Hollywood, she often spent evenings working at home in the room where she invented things, such as an anti-aircraft shell equipped with a proximity fuse and a tablet that could be dropped in water to make a cola drink. Disdaining the celebrity lifestyle, she concluded that “any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Over time, she developed a reputation for being difficult and produced two films herself.

While making films, she developed an addiction to “pep pills” supplied by the studio and her behavior became erratic. In the late 1950s, she and her fifth husband Howard Lee were divorcing when her son was injured in an accident. Much to the divorce court judge’s dismay, she sent her movie stand-in, Sylvia Hollis, in her place to the initial hearing. After her Hollywood career withered, she lived modestly as a recluse. Twice, she was arrested for shoplifting, once in 1966 and again in 1991. In the first case, she was acquitted; in the second, she was convicted and sentenced to a year of probation.

Lamarr died in January 2000 at 85, but even as her end drew near, she was still inventing things: a fluorescent dog collar, modifications for the supersonic Concorde airliner, and a new kind of stoplight. After her death, her son, Anthony Loder, said that she would be pleased with the legacy of her “frequency hopping” concept: “She would love to be remembered as someone who contributed to the well-being of humankind.”

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