The Hollywood Bombshell Who Invented an Indispensable War Technology

In 1942, Hedy Lamarr received a patent for frequency hopping, but was told to devote her efforts elsewhere

Hedy Lamarr
CinemaPhoto/Corbis

My face has been my misfortune,” wrote Hedy Lamarr. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 to a well-heeled Jewish family in Vienna, she fled a husband who sold arms to the Nazis only to captivate Hollywood with her beauty. But when Lamarr wasn’t playing femme fatales or damsels in distress, she was often sitting at a drafting table, inventing. That included “frequency hopping,” a secret communications system whereby a radio transmitter and receiver jumped frequencies together. She believed that the technology could prevent the Allies’ radio-guided torpedoes from being jammed by the Germans. In 1942, 27-year-old Lamarr and composer George Antheil, who built the mechanism, received a patent. The Navy, skeptical of its practicality, told the actress to stick to raising money for the war effort. So she rounded up a record-breaking $7 million in one night alone. Yet years later, when the Navy needed a way to encode messages about detected submarines, it turned to frequency hopping. The concept was used again during the Cuban missile crisis. The idea presaged wireless communication in cellphones, GPS, and Wi-Fi, but its glamorous deviser didn’t receive recognition until she was 82.

This article is a selection from our Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Danube Issue

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