Hedy Lamarr
Credit: Eliot Elisofon/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Hedy Lamarr was a gorgeous and seductive screen siren of the 1930s and ’40s, but it turns out she wasn’t just another pretty face. In his new book, Hedy’s Folly, author Richard Rhodes reveals that Lamarr was a brilliant scientist who invented spread-spectrum radio, the technology that allows your cell phone to operate. “Hedy invented as a hobby. Since she made two or three movies a year, each one taking a month to shoot, she had spare time to fill,” writes Rhodes. “She didn’t drink and she didn’t like to party, so she took up inventing … In Hollywood she set up an inventor’s corner in the drawing room of her house, complete with a drafting table and lamp and all the necessary drafting tools.”

Her wireless communications breakthroughs had immediate ramifications, especially once war broke out in Europe. She and composer George Antheil claimed a patent for its applications on guided torpedo systems. Antheil “had succeeded in synchronizing four piano players at his Carnegie Hall concert in 1927. In the fall of 1940, he and Hedy now proceeded to work together to apply that knowledge to the problem of creating a frequency-hopping radio signal and synchronizing its frequency changes between a ship or an airplane and a torpedo.”

“How did an actress and a composer go about inventing a remote-controlled torpedo?… Hedy discussed the invention process at length in 1997 in a telephone conversation with a fellow inventor, Carmelo ‘Nino’ Amarena, who is also an electrical engineer expert in the field of digital wireless communications. ‘We talked like two engineers on a hot project,’ Amarena told me, ‘prompting one another to the next subject. I never felt I was talking to a movie star, but to a fellow inventor.'”

But Rhodes says Lamarr, bright but uneducated, was indeed the one who came up with the idea for a radio-controlled torpedo. “I didn’t know how to do it,” she told Amarena. “I explained the basics of the idea, and the implementation part came from George.”

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