September 2, 2010

Hedwig and the very secret communication system

Unfinished business from August:

Patent filing.

H. K. Markey is Hedy Lamarr (nee Hedwig Kiesler) and et al referred to George Antheil, a famous avant garde composer. Markey was the second of Hedy’s six husbands.

It was Max Reinhardt who called Hedy Lamarr the most beautiful woman in Europe.  She was hardly ever described as the woman who collaborated with Antheil to design and patent a communication system so far in advance of its time that, although not used in WWII, it is one of the key elements in the development of cell phones and wi-fi.

So key, in fact that the Electronic Freedom Foundation gave Lamarr and Antheil a special Pioneer award in 1997 in recognition of their contribution to the field.

Maybe it’s common knowledge, because there is certainly plenty of info on the net about Hedy and her invention.  There was even a play written about it.

But it was news to me.  Hedy Lamarr seemed like one of those stars who never appeared in very good movies but were stars just the same.  She did actually peak early – her best work was in the 30s and 40s, and it went downhill after that.

She had married a Viennese arms manufacturer when she was 19.  He refused to let her continue in the movies and made her go with him to meetings with technicians and businessmen who were working with the Nazis.  This reportedly angered Hedy, who was Jewish, and she later recalled this group discussing ways to disrupt Allied broadcasts.

She ran away.  She literally sneaked out of the schloss, got to Paris and then London, where she encountered Louis B. Mayer.  Her career in Hollywood began.

One of her neighbors in L.A. was George Antheil, a well-known musician.  She had been working on the idea for years, but it was with Antheil’s help that it really took shape. Their system was quite complex.  It has been described as being related to music theory – Antheil had written the music for Leger’s Ballet Mechanique which involved multiple player pianos playing simultaneously – but the mathematics are thought to be Lamarr’s contribution.

Basically the system involves something called frequency-hopping – a detailed explanation of which can be found here. The concept was brilliant, but the technology at the time couldn’t handle it.  The government thanked Miss Lamarr, but asked her to go back to selling war bonds, which she did.  On just one occasion, she raised seven million dollars.

After the patent expired, the government  tried out the system during the Cuban blockade in 1962.  A Canadian company made a patent arrangement with her eventually. Hedy Lamarr died in Florida in 2000, age 86, and her ashes were scattered in Austria.



  1. didn’t know this either. thanks for the profile. hedy certainly knew to step outside the box. “genius” could be a word used to describe her. i so look forward to your blog each day, jean. CONTEXT is where my eye lands first when i open my inbox. xo


    Comment by ursel — September 2, 2010 @ 5:54 am | Reply

  2. thanks constant reader!


    Comment by jchatoff — September 2, 2010 @ 9:33 am | Reply

  3. WOW – thats fricking amazing!!!!


    Comment by Nina — September 2, 2010 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

  4. This piece sends me! Thanks.


    Comment by Deborah Turk — September 4, 2010 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

  5. Cool stuff


    Comment by avery zia — September 6, 2010 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  6. All the information on the web stems from the pioneer award. The sad thing is it’s all based on fallacy and error in a rush to bathe in the limelight of a patent that should never have been granted in the form we know it. It never had any influence on cellphones or GPS… or … well, anything. It was a dead end. This won’t make me popular but at least I can put it all into context. I got her looking for better images of the patent.


    Comment by Marc — November 23, 2015 @ 3:36 pm | Reply

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