Hedy Lamarr was one of the most popular Hollywood actresses of the 1930s and 40s. But she also played a part in making today’s digital mobile phone calls harder to intercept and monitor.
Away from the MGM studios, Lamarr (a.k.a. Hedwig Keisler Markey) worked in the field of radio physics during the Second World War, and (with her close friend, musician George Antheil) basically invented the “spread spectrum” technique of radio communications — the transmission of a radio signal in a complex pattern, which reduces the chances of a signal being intercepted or the location of its transmitter identified.
Lamarr and Antheil designed it for controlling torpedos fired from submarines, but the technology of the time was too primitive to make practical use of the theory. But with the development of the transistor, and later the integrated circuit, spread spectrum technology finally became practical. The US military began using it in the early sixties — some years after Lamarr and Antheil’s patent had expired. They never profited from the invention. Today, it finds applications in both the military and civilian spheres, and it is widely employed in cell phones (or mobile phones) as a way of ensuring privacy on the airwaves.
Small wonder, then, that the Austrian-born actress had little patience for some of her more vapid Hollywood colleagues. “Any girl can look glamorous,” she once said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Hedy Lamarr died in January 2000 at the age of 86.