Hedy Lamarr: Famous Actor, Unlikely Inventor

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Hedy Lamar had said that “Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” During her career as a film star, Hedy was always glamorous. But she was seldom still and far from stupid.

 

She was born as Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, Austria in 1914. As a child she dreamed of becoming an actor, but she had many other interests as well. She loved to walk with her father, listening as he described inventions, “from printing presses to streetcars.” She also spoke French and was a tennis fan, dancer, and pianist.

 

By the time she was 18, Hedy had acted in several plays and movies. A fan, who had become wealthy making weapons, courted her and they were married. Hedy often heard discussions between her husband and engineers and clients. They thought she wasn’t listening, but Hedy was learning about the latest advances in military weapons. Soon Hedy grew unhappy, however. Her jealous husband wanted her to give up acting and most other interests. Hedy refused to be stifled. After four years of marriage, Hedy sneaked away from Vienna and her husband.

Hedy Lamarr

She fled to London where she began to learn English. She also met an American movie producer. When he offered her a job in Hollywood, she accepted. But not before getting him to quadruple her salary. Hedy changed her last name to Lamarr to appeal more to Americans. She was an almost instant star. Her fame allowed her to work for a few months of each year with long breaks between filming.

 

Hedy used her spare time for other interests, like piano and travel. But one of her favorite hobbies was inventing. She worked on an improved tissue box, ideas for making planes faster, and a pill that would turn water into a fizzy soda. In 1940, with World War II looming, she started thinking about weapons. She told a friend she didn’t want to sit “in Hollywood and [make] lots of money when things were in such a state.”

 

From discussions overheard during her marriage, Hedy knew German engineers were working on torpedoes  guided with a radio signal. It was the same idea used today for remote control cars. She also knew they had a problem. Enemies could easily find the frequency  of the radio signal and “jam” it. Jamming meant that the enemy broadcast meaningless noise using the same frequency. The noise swamped the signal meant to guide the torpedo.

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Hedy invented a way to prevent jamming. She reasoned that if the frequency changed often, the enemy wouldn’t be able to keep up. The idea was called “frequency hopping.” But to work, the sender and receiver had to change frequencies together. She worked with a friend, composer George Antheil, to solve that problem. Their inspiration came from player pianos. Player pianos are controlled by long rolls of paper with patterns of holes punched in them. The holes tell a machine when to the push switches that work the piano’s keys. Hedy and George realized they could use a miniature version of those rolls of paper to switch the frequency on a radio. If the sender and receiver used identical rolls, they would stay in sync.

Draconichiaro

The idea proved to be ahead of its time. The US military did eventually use frequency hopping for guiding weapons and vehicles and communication, but not until 1963. It also had many more uses than Hedy had realized. Frequency hopping paved the way for cell phones, GPS , and Wi-Fi . In 1997, Hedy was finally recognized for her idea when she received the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

 

Hedy quit acting in her 50s, but didn’t give up her other interests, especially inventing. Shortly before she died at age 85, she was working on plans for a fluorescent dog collar and an improved traffic light, among other ideas. Hedy felt that having many interests made life fun and exciting. She also showed that you don’t have to be a full-time scientist to be an innovator. You just have to pay attention and be curious.

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 7.0

 

Flesch Kincaid Readability Score: 67.5

Glossary

Frequency: A measure of how often a wave, such as a radio wave, goes from a maximum to a minimum and back each second.

 

GPS (Global Positioning System): System that determines a device’s location by sending signals between the device on the ground and satellites that orbit Earth.

 

Torpedo: A missile launched from a ship or plane that travels underwater and explodes when it hits a target.

 

Wi-Fi: System that lets devices connect to each other or the internet without using any wires.

Books:

 

Rhodes, R. (2011). Hedy’s Folly: The life and breakthrough inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in the world. Doubleday.

 

Websites:

 

Cheslak, C. (2018). Hedy Lamarr, 1914-2000. National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/hedy-lamarr

 

George, A. (2019). Thank this World War II-era film star for your Wi-Fi. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/thank-world-war-ii-era-film-star-your-wi-fi-180971584/

 

Jewell, C. (2018). Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr story: an interview with Alexandra Dean. World Intellectual Property Organization. https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2018/02/article_0002.html

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