Hedy Lamarr: The Classic Movie Star You Owe for Wi-Fi & GPS

Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beloved sex symbols of the World War II era, but its her brains you can thank for the iPhone in your pocket.

If you can remember 1989 and When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan’s onscreen orgasm awakened such a force in America that our loins had us limping for a week—from the pain endured by rolling in our seats with laughter. But if you want an onscreen orgasm with legs, Hedy Lamarr’s scandalous rendition in the Czech film Ecstasy (1933) brought her ridicule the world over and essentially boxed her into playing high class whores for the rest of her career (she was also Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s inspiration for the Catwoman character). But sadly, it didn’t do any justice for remembering her true brilliance. For proof, all you have to do is reach down in your pocket, because the iPhone that resides there has her name and patent all over it.

The story of this lifelong snubbed talent began in 1933 when Lamarr married her first husband, Austrian arms dealer Friedrich Mandl. Greedy, controlling, and jealous, Mandl’s half-Jewish origins gave him no qualms in entering partnerships with Nazi Germany, or throwing parties that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini attended. Thus Lamarr often found herself in discussions involving military technology with Mandl into the wee hours of the morning.

Among the discourse between the aggrieved spouses was the problem of signal jamming, and the ease at which torpedoes could be knocked off course with intervening radio signals. But by being a virtual prisoner of Mandl herself, the fully Jewish Lamarr (who nonetheless was raised Catholic) eventually put flight out of Europe ahead of bringing application to steering underwater projectiles.

Escaping to Paris in 1937 by dressing undercover as a maid, Lamarr booked passage on a boat to America that she knew Louis B. Mayer would be on, and before making port, the mogul had signed Lamarr to a $600 a week salary (something akin to about $3,500 today). Due to typecasting from Ecstasy, Lamarr appeared at her sultriest in films like the 1940 doubleheader with Clark Gable, Boom Town and Comrade X, as well as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), White Cargo (1942), and Dishonored Lady (1947).

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For Lamarr, this newfound freedom had Hollywood trapping her in another form of captivity. “People gawk at me like I was like something in a zoo,” she told Life Magazine in 1938.

But it did not deter her from playing a part in the war effort, which fed into a secret creativity to be an inventor. Indeed, Lamarr had partitioned off a room in her house exclusively for this engineering hobby. So when she met music composer George Antheil at a Hollywood dinner party in 1940, a signal jamming solution jumped out at her. He had invented an avant-garde symphony system where a dozen player pianos could operate in synchronization, and she rolled the idea into torpedo play.

 In other words, if pianos could be synchronized to hop from one note to another by using a piano roll, why couldn’t radio signals? By submerging the science under water, Lamarr proposed that a transmitter and receiver could simultaneously jump from frequency to frequency, and an enemy would not know where the signal was coming from—it couldn’t be jammed. With her patent for this “Secret Communication System,” Lamarr and Antheil had laid the groundwork for what would become known as the frequency hopping spread spectrum.

Experts at the time acknowledged the possibilities, but the U.S. Navy might have just seen a pretty face. Likening her inspiration to putting a piano player on a torpedo, the Navy’s top brass simply filed it away and told Lamarr she’d be better served selling war bonds.

She acquiesced and did the same. Yet, the military would come to recognize the importance of her patent during the Cold War, and others built on the idea. Indeed, after the U.S. Navy sat on the patent for the “Secret Communication System” for over two decades, which Lamarr signed away to the military brass in 1942, they finally began implementation of it during the fateful 13 days of October 1962 when Lamarr’s technology was used to code military messages between ships and the U.S. government during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It proved instrumental during the blockade, which saw the globe briefly on the precipice of World War III.

And now the principles of the technology are attached to the devices that follow our every move today. Unlike landlines, which have precisely one connection, cellphones share a wide bandwidth carrier channel. So to prevent interference among multiple users, and to transmit the right message, a unique code for each must be deciphered and switched thousands of times along this channel.

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This once neglected patent is a cornerstone of today’s spread-spectrum communication, including GPS, Bluetooth, and all Wi-Fi networks.

So every time your smartphone makes a frequency jump, you should say thank you to Hedy Lamarr, who never made a cent off her innovation; the Navy never even truly acknowledge the importance she played in the patent she gave to them gift-wrapped.

Recognition, though, did come in a long belated acknowledgement by the scientific community and even a few awards. But the beauty she had run away from her whole life passed her by and several botched plastic surgeries made her a recluse who never accepted the awards—and despite being married six times in her life, she ultimately died alone in 2000 at the age of 85.

But the final indignity Lamarr endured might be what she’s most known for today by those who still think Meg Ryan faked the first onscreen orgasm.

From Blazing Saddles:

Governor William J. Le Petomane: Thank you, Hedy, thank you.

Hedley Lamarr: It’s not Hedy, it’s Hedley. Hedley Lamarr. 

Governor Le Petomane: What the Hell are you worried about? This is 1874. You’ll be able to sue her!

She did just that, and Mel Brooks was made to pay a settlement for the character played by Harvey Korman.

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Now that’s a dropped call.