As a female patent attorney and MIT graduate, I have always been fascinated by women inventors and especially by Hedy LaMarr, a famed beauty of the 1930s and 40s. She was a woman who utilized both her beauty and her brains.
Hedy LaMarr was a heroine of many movies, playing against stars including Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. She is famous for saying “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” But stupid is one thing that Ms. LaMarr definitely was not. Besides being a movie star, she also invented the communications technology that forms the basis of mobile phones and Wi-Fi today.
Born in Austria between the wars, Hedy LaMarr began acting in her teens and married Fritz Mandel, a weapons dealer to Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. Although many couldn’t see beyond Hedy’s beauty, she learned about the Third Reich’s weapons systems while entertaining Mandel’s clients.
Because her life with Mandel wasn’t pleasant, she fled from him and sailed to the US with Louis B. Mayer, the American film producer, who made her into a new film actress in Hollywood. She was now safe from the Nazis, but the plight of the Europeans and the torpedoing of the U-boats in the Atlantic weighed heavily on her.
With her knowledge gained from listening to her ex-husband’s conversations, she knew the Nazis listened to Allied naval communications and could jam them, leaving Allied ships unable to communicate with each other. More importantly, the jamming meant that radio-controlled torpedoes became uncontrollable.
Hedy LaMarr could not rest until she came up with a solution. She foresaw that if the frequencies of transmission continually changed, the Nazis could not jam the signal. The problem was that both sides of the transmission — the sender and the receiver — needed to be synchronized. Both needed to know which frequency was to be used,when and for how long, in order to remain in contact with each other.
She had the brainy idea, but she had no implementation until her beauty came to her rescue. At an exclusive Hollywood party, she met George Antheil, an avant-garde composer who had synchronized two player pianos. Hedy realized that his synchronization method might help her create a synchronized frequency hopping system.
They filed a patent application
and then tried to interest a US Navy general to adopt their invention. He didn’t like the idea (it was too mechanically unwieldy), nor did he appreciate inventions from outsiders, and especially not from dilettante movie stars. He dismissed Hedy, telling her that she should use her beauty to market the US bonds needed to support the war. Though disappointed, she switched gears and helped the bonds effort.
The story did not end there. The Navy received the rights to the invention and eventually implemented the technology in 1962. The market eventually developed their idea into the communication technique behind Wi-Fi, cell phones, and Bluetooth.
The success of Hedy’s invention came from a combination of her brains and beauty. She used her access to Nazi generals, to George Antheil and to the US Navy that her beauty provided, not for power or money, but to build something of importance.
I grew up in the 60s and 70s knowing of Hedy LaMarr only as a Hollywood star, never realizing what other abilities she had. Only recently, after writing patent applications for modern radios, computers and phones, did I find out about Hedy LaMarr’s contribution and did I realize what an amazing role model she is for girls today, that being beautiful does not require being stupid.