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Hedy Lamarr

Lady Bluetooth (1914 - 2000)

Once called the most beautiful woman in film, one is forgiven to associate Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr initially with her screen presence. And, admittedly, she has starred in many notable movies, such as ‘Algiers’ (1938) and ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949). Notoriously, it was the 1932 German film ‘Extase’ that brought her to the attention of these Hollywood productions. Here, she would - for the first time in cinema history - depict a female orgasm. The scene prompted censorship in many countries as well as the personal condemnation of Pope Pius XI. Equally enraged by the obscenity was Hedy’s Viennese husband Fritz Mandl. This arms dealer and Nazi sympathizer wanted to buy up all the copies of the overly exposing film. Rumor has it that Italian fascist Benito Mussolini refused to give up his copy.

The marriage - which she described as slavelike - ended in 1937. After having secured a ticket to Hollywood, she would quickly resume her cinematic career across the Atlantic Ocean. As historian Pamela Hutchinson notices: “[Her] characters, often exoticised in a nod to her European heritage, were beautiful creatures to be looked at, absorbed by the male gaze, and with very little to say.” Especially the latter started to irritate Hedy herself, claiming that “any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Hedy was done with standing still. Friend and aviation tycoon Howard Hughes became aware of this and provided her with equipment to run experiments in her trailer during her free time. She was prolific, coming up with an improved traffic stoplight and effervescent cola tablets. In 1941, amidst the Second World War, Hedy would prove that it is indeed her technical mind that is her most prominent legacy. Together with composer George Antheil, she patented a ‘Secret Communication System’, allowing torpedoes to sidestep enemy efforts at radio interference. The system made use of frequency-hopping spread spectrum techniques that allowed both the transmitter as the receiver to ‘hop’ to new frequencies together. Doing so prevented the interception of the radio waves by the Axis powers. Today, the spread-spectrum technique that Hedy pioneered has become ‘the crutch of secure military communication as well as mobile phone technologies’ - such as Bluetooth, GPS and WiFi. Without Hedy’s inventive mind, it has been claimed, the latter would not have existed.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy did not adopt the technology until the 1960s Cuban missile crisis, which is why Hedy never earned a penny with the patent. ‘Looks over action’ prevailed as well during the remainder of her lifetime. While she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, it wouldn’t be until 1997 that she became acknowledged for her technical contributions. This year, three years before her death, Hedy and George were honoured with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. Moreover, in 2014, they became posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their Secret Communication System.

Hedy Lamarr


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