Hedy Lamarr was born in Vienna in 1914 as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. She went to Max Reinhardt's famous acting school in Berlin during her late teens, and in 1933 she showed the world her acting skills and most of herself in the film Extase (Ecstacy), which quickly became notorious for its extensive nude scenes. The movie played in America after severe cutting, and in 1937 its leading lady went to Hollywood. Louis B. Mayer, of MGM, hired her and gave her the name Lamarr. Some people thought Hedy to be the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, but as an actress she was overshadowed by heroines like Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn. In 1966, she published her autobiography, Ecstacy and Me.
Hedy Lamarr married Fritz Mandal, the first of six husbands, in 1933. During their marriage, which broke up in 1937, Madame Mandl was an institution in Viennese society, entertainingand dazzlingforeign leaders, including Hitler and Mussolini. Her husband specialized in shells and grenades, but from the mid-thirties on he also manufactured military aircraft. He was interested in control systems and conducted research in the field. His wife clearly learned things from him, because she and her co-inventor, George Antheil, later went on to invent the torpedo guidance system that was two decades before its time.
Hedy Lamarr's co-inventor, George Antheil, was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1900. His parents were from East Prussia. After studying music at what is now the Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia, he went to Europe to pursue a career as a concert pianist, heading first to Berlin and then settling in Paris in 1923. He became one of the top avante-garde composers of the time, writing and playing machinelike, "mechanistic," rhythmically propulsive pieces with names like Airplane Sonata, Sonata Sauvage, Jazz Sonata, and Death of Machines. His Ballet Méanique was scored for sixteen player pianos, xylophones and percussion and was first performed in Paris in June 1926, in a version that had only one player piano but also had electric bells, airplane propellers and a siren. It caused an uproar.
Antheil knew practically everybody in Paris's literary, artistic and musical circles, but in 1933 he returned permanently to the United States. He became a film composer in Hollywood and a writer for Esquire magazine, producing a syndicated advice-to-the-lovelorn column and articles about romance and endocrinology. He even published a book titled Every Man His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Endocrinology. In 1939 he set an article to Esquire about the future of Europe that proved impressively accurate: It predicted that the war would start with Germany invading Poland, that Germany would later attack Russia, and then the United States would be drawn into the conflict.
He met Hedy Lamar in the summer of 1940, when they were neighbors in Hollywood and she approached him witha question about glands: She wanted to know how she could enlarge her breasts. In time the conversation came around to weapons, and Lamarr told Antheil that she was contemplating quitting MGM and moving to Washington, D.C., to offer her services to the newly established National Inventors Council.
Hedy Lamarr's Co-Invented Secret Communications Device
They began talking about radio control for torpedoes. The idea itself was not new, but her concept of "frequency hopping" was. Lamarr brought up the idea of radio control. Antheil's contribution was to suggest the device by which synchronization could be achieved. He proposed that rapid changes in radio frequencies could be coordinated the way he had coordinated the sixteen synchronized player pianos in his Ballet Méanique. The analogy was complete in his mind: By the time the two applied for a patent on a "Secret Communication System," on June 10, 1941, the invention used slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls to synchronize the frequency changes in transmitter and receiver, and it even called for exactly eighty-eight frequencies, the number of keys on a piano.
Lamarr and Antheil worked on the idea for several months and then, in December 1940, sent a description of it to the National Inventors Council, which had been launched with much fanfare earlier in the year as a gatherer of novel ideas and inventions from the general public. Its chairman was Charles F. Kettering, the research director of General Motors. Over its lifetime, which lasted until 1974, the council collected more than 625,000 suggestions, few of which ever reached the patent stage. But according to Antheil, Kettering himself suggested that he and Lamarr develop their idea to the point of being patentable. With the help of an electrical engineering professor from the California Institute of Technology they ironed out its bugs, and the patent was granted on August 11, 1942. It specified that a high-altitude observiation plane could steer the torpedo from above.
Putting the idea into practice was not so simple. Despite the enthusiasm that Antheil said Kettering expressed, others were skeptical. One examiner at the Inventors Council doubted the clockwork mechanism that moved the perforated tape could be accurate enough. Antheil lobbied for support for further research from among others, William C. Bullit, Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. He argued that the Germans were superior to the Americans in naval technology and that something had to be done about it. He seemed driven in part by an urge to prove his patriotism after all his years in Europe. Hedy Lamarr meanwhile demonstrated her loyalty by raising seven million dollars in a single evening selling war bonds.
Despite Antheil's lobbying, the Navy turned its back on the invention, concluding that the mechanism would have been too bulky to fit into a torpedo. Antheil disagreed; he insisted that it could be made small enough to squeeze into a watch. And he thought he knew why the Navy was so negative: "In our patent Hedy and I attempted to better elucidate our mechanism by explaining that certain parts of it worked like the fundamental mechanism of a player piano. Here, undoubted, we made our mistake. The reverend and brass-headed gentlemen in Washington who examined our invention read no further than the words 'player piano. 'My god,' I can see them saying, 'we shall put a player piano in a torpedo.'"
In other words, it was a culture clash: the thick-headed brass hats were incapable of considering the idea that musical technology could play any part in a complicated piece of weaponry. But Antheil's explanation is too simple; the invention had other problems. Describing them requires looking at other developments in torpedo control at the time, especially in Germany.
In the United States Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, shunned by the Navy, no longer pursued their invention. But in 1957, the concept was taken up by engineers at the Sylvania Electronic Systems Division, in Buffalo, New York. Their arrangement, using, of course, electronics rather than piano rolls, ultimately became a basic tool for secure military communications. It was installed on ships sent to blockade Cuba in 1962, about three years after the Lamarr-Antheil patent had expired. Subsequent patents in frequency changing, which are generally unrelated to torpedo control, have referred to the Lamarr-Antheil patent as the basis of the field, and the concept lies behind the principal anti-jamming device used today, for example, in the U.S. government's Milstar defense communication satellite system.
American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Spring 1997, Volume 12/Number 4