The most beautiful inventor in the world

The actress Hedy Lamarr was once widely considered the most beautiful girl in the world — did she also invent wifi and cell phones?

I first heard the story of Hedy Lamarr at a microwave electronics convention in Anaheim, tagging along after my inventor father. Microwave technologists are some hardcore geeks, guys so smart they can barely comb their hair and button their shirts. If they could, they would live in Matrix pods and exist merely to dream. They first told me the apocryphal story of an inventor who filed a ground-breaking patent that is a precursor to wifi and cell phone technology: the glamorous 1940s movie star Hedy Lamarr.

Lamarr was considered “the most beautiful girl in the world” during the WWII era, but few outside the field of microwave electronics know that she was also a brilliant inventor who tried, but failed, to break free of Hollywood to devote her life to technology. By the time she died in 2000 at the age of 86, she was a habitual shoplifter and bitter recluse who lived alone in a Florida condo.

In 1933, 19-year-old Hedwig Kiesler starred in a Czech film called Ecstasy, in which she chased a horse naked through a field and had an orgasm on screen. But Hedy was not a movie star then , just a pretty, Swiss-boarding-school-educated girl who starred in an art film, and soon, at the behest of her parents, she married.

Her husband, Friedrich Fritz Mandl, was a wealthy munitions manufacturer who sold arms to Mussolini and was a Nazi sympathizer. He was an obsessive spouse, and took Hedy with him everywhere he went in order to keep an eye on her, even to his business meetings (this is how she became an expert on munitions systems). In 1937, miserable and desperate, Hedy drugged her maid and fled her home. She soon wound up in Hollywood, courtesy of Louis B. Mayer, who christened the new star Hedy Lamarr.

In 1941, at a dinner party at Janet Gaynor’s house, Hedy met George Antheil, an avant-garde composer who scored symphonies using instruments like airplane propellers and player pianos. The two bonded over their loathing for fascism, and somehow found a shared sense of mechanical creative zeal.

What must that conversation have been like? A long, jerky, breathless dialogue, finishing each other’s half-formed ideas, hopping from topic to topic, the static electricity flying off their fingertips as they gestured. At the end of the evening, Hedy wrote her phone number across his windshield in lipstick.

The next night, the composer and the star of White Cargo got together with pencil and paper. The two came up with an anti-jamming device for radio-controlled torpedoes, a technology now known as “spread spectrum frequency hopping.” They used two synchronized piano rolls as the coder and decoder. Antheil, who died in 1959, always gave his partner most of the credit for making the intellectual leaps.

The two donated the resulting patent to the U.S. government to help the war effort, but the government sat on the technology until after the patent had expired, using it finally in ships sent to Cuba during the Bay of Pigs. Today, spread spectrum technology is fundamental to the government’s $25 million MILSTAR defense satellite communications.

After receiving the patent, Hedy asked to join the National Inventors’ Council: She wanted to quit the movies and become a full time technologist. They patted her on the head and patronizingly told her to keep her day job as a movie star — they felt she could best serve the war effort by selling war bonds (she once raised $7 million in one night).

“You could argue that she invented frequency hopping,” Lucent Technologies’ CTO, George Zysman, told me in 2001 when I was writing a short piece on Lamarr for US Business Review. Zysman had been at Bell Labs and Lucent for 30 years, and holds several patents of his own. I had called him hoping to verify the rumors I’d heard amongst the microwave technologists.

“The historical documents refer to hers as the first spread spectrum patent,” he said. “Hold on a minute — ” He called up Hedy and George’s patent on the Internet. “Patent No. 2,292,387, filed Aug. 11, 1941,” Zysman read off. “’Briefly, our system as adapted for radio control of a remote craft, employs a pair of synchronous records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station.’

“She was ahead of her time,” Zysman said. “It was remarkable that a person not technically trained could be so farsighted as to associate the keys of the piano with encryption.”

Lamarr has been recognized for her contributions from time to time, receiving the Electronic Frontier Foundation award in 1997. Yet her New York Times obituary dismissed her invention as myth, saying that she lacked the “technological background” to do what she purportedly did. The idea that a great beauty could also be a great inventor was literally deemed impossible.

Yet in the great scheme of things, there’s little difference between the lonely, geeky boy playing with an oscilloscope in a suburban garage and the lonely beauty sketching plans for a radar device in her Hollywood Hills hideaway. Both are disruptors, succeeding by creating chaos around themselves — they literally stir things up. They upset standards and expectations; they look the impossible in the eye; they are susceptible to bitterness when they are inevitably misunderstood, underestimated and unappreciated.

“Naivete in this context equals a lack of preconception,” my father the inventor said from the garage-like office of his struggling electronics firm in Portland, Oregon when I called to share the news of Lamarr’s death with him. “Experts mostly know what can’t be done, and since anything can be done, they know nothing!”

The truth is, our world is really built not by corporations and qualified scientists, but by people like Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, sitting at a dinner party and suddenly clicking away like mad because they have freed themselves from the conceptual blinkers that most people wear to get through in life. Sometimes these people start companies and get famous, but that takes an additional, also arbitrary set of talents; for the most part, we don’t recognize the real inventors of our world.

Silicon Valley has changed forever the way companies get made and the way we invest in newness, but the formula is still a formula, and the expectations for where new ideas will arise is just as narrow as ever. True invention comes from outside all boxes. It’s such a simple idea that it’s almost hard to grasp. There are women in business, yes, but is there one VC out there today who would give money to a pretty girl who took notes in lipstick?

A hundred years from now, we’ll be in space, hopefully, where we’ll all have to be brilliant, gorgeous, and, by definition, naive. As all true pioneers are. Here’s to a future with many, many problems to be solved by ravishing creatures whose time has come.