August 11th in Feminist History

800px-hedy_lamarr_-_1940On this day in 1942, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil received a patent for a frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication system. The technique they patented lead to the basic technology used in wireless telephones and much more. Hedy was born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesley in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. She was the only child of a Jewish father and and a mother who had been born Jewish and converted to Catholicism. (Hedy would later use her influence and fame to help her mother escape from Austria during the Nazi regime.) Producer Max Reinhardt discovered Hedy in the late 1920s and brought her to Berlin to train. She then returned to Vienna to begin working in the film industry, first as a script girl and then as an actress. In 1933 she starred at the age of 18 in Gustav Machaty’s film Ecstasy. (This film later became notorious due to nude scenes as well as a scene of her face mid-orgasm.)

Later that same year (still only 18), Hedy married Friedrich Mandl; a wealthy and very jealous military arms and munitions merchant who had ties to the Nazi government. Hedy later fled the controlling and unbearable marriage to him by disguising herself as a maid and escaping to Paris. In Paris she met Louis B. Mayer, who hired her and convinced her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr. (The surname was a tribute to the silent film star, Barbara La Marr.) The renamed Hedy came to America where she debuted in Hollywood in the film Algiers in 1938. Her manager billed her as the “world’s most beautiful woman” and one viewer stated that during her first appearance in the film: “everyone gasped…Lamarr’s beauty literally took one’s breath away.” Hedy made over 18 films from 1940-1949 and her filmography includes: Boom Town, Comrade X, White Cargo, Tortilla Flat, Dishonored Lady, and Ziegfeld Girl.

Hedy’s roles tended to involve her looking gorgeous and sensual and saying little, which she found boring. That boredom inspired her to take up inventing as a hobby. Some of her early inventions included an improved traffic stoplight and a carbonated drink tablet. (She said the drink tasted like Alka-Seltzer, thus why it wasn’t successful.) During World War II she worked with composer George Antheil to draft designs for a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedoes. Part of her knowledge for the invention came from what she had learned about torpedoes from her abusive ex-husband. The technology they created also drew inspiration from piano rolls, and functioned by changing the radio signals sent to a torpedo to prevent it from getting jammed. The patent was granted under the married name Hedy Kiesler Markey, as she was married at the time to her second husband, Gene Markey. (She eventually had six husbands in total; divorcing the last in 1965 and remaining single for the last 35 years of her life.)

Unfortunately the U.S. Military wasn’t open to using inventions from non-military people (they were also just lazy) and the technology wasn’t put to use until the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The technology design went on to become an important part of the communication technology used now in Wi-Fi, bluetooth, and CDMA. Hedy received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award, and earned a posthumous induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her work on the design. Hedy died in January of 2000 at the age of 85.


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