Hedy Lamarr: '30s film diva, mobile phone tech pioneer, anti-Nazi gadget inventor.

Snip from an essay by artist Michaela Melián on Hedy Lemarr, the Austrian-born American scientist and actress who was once described as the most beautiful woman in the world by MGM's Louis B. Mayer. Art Fag City Editor Paddy Johnson says, "Not only was she the first actress to simulate an orgasm onscreen in 1933, but her frequency-switching device (now known as frequency hopping) developed with partner George Antheil, is the technology upon with cell phones are built."

Melián assembled this online essay for Art Fag City's annual IMG MGMT which, in which artists are invited to curate image essays on the blog. She also wrote a score to accompany the old school style slide show, which is embedded in the post.

Image above: Michaela Melián, Frequency Hopping, 2008, C-print, watercolor, thread, 35 x 28 cm.


In her ex-husband's Salzburg villa, the immigrant had seen plans for remote controlled torpedoes, which were never built because the radio controls proved to be too unreliable. After the outbreak of the Second World War, she worked on practical ideas to effectively fight the Hitler regime. At a party in Hollywood, Lamarr met George Antheil, an avant-garde composer who also wrote film scores. While playing the piano with the composer, the actress suddenly has an important idea for her torpedo control system. Antheil sets up the system on 88 frequencies, as this number corresponds to the number of keys on a piano. To construct it, he employs something similar to the player piano sheet music that he used in his Ballet Mécanique.

In December 1940, the frequency-switching device developed by Lamarr and Antheil was sent to the National Inventors' Council. A patent was awarded on August 11, 1942. The two inventors leave it to the American military to figure out how to use the device. Lamarr's and Antheil's Secret Communication System disappears into the U.S. Army's filing cabinets.

Finally, in 1962, as the Cuba crisis brews the technology now known as frequency hopping is put to use. Its purpose is not to control torpedoes, but to allow for safe communications among blockading ships - whereupon the principles behind the patent become part of fundamental U.S. military communications technology. Today, this technology is not only the foundation for the U.S. military's satellite defense system, but also used widely in the private sector, particularly for cordless and mobile telephones.

IMG MGMT: Life As A Woman, Hedy Lamarr (Art Fag City)


  1. Right– ‘Spread Spectrum’ is the correct term. It has the nice property (foretold in a sci-fi story whose name I don’t remember) that it encodes messages in a ‘dense’ fashion– the signal looks like noise.

  2. I would think BB readers would want to thank Heddy for wifi more than cordless phones, both being applications of spread spectrum technology.

  3. Never lovelier then in her film banned in America, “Ekstase” from 1933. Below is a still shot showing why it was banned. She did her version of the famous scene from WHEN HARRY MET SALLY in the water, rather then in a restaurant, and without clothes.

    Without clothes:

    With clothes:

  4. ♫ Let’s talk of Lamarr, that Hedy so fair
    Why does she let Joan Bennett wear all her old hair? ♫

    The above Cole Porter lyric will be meaningless to anyone under 50.

    1. Antinous, what does it mean?

      Ms. Bennett styled her hair to become the ersatz Hedy Lamarr. By the time she starred in Dark Shadows, she had graduated to wearing Joan Crawford’s old hair.

  5. She was also the cover art for Corel Draw. Used without permission of course. So she sued their asses off.

  6. spread what? *cough*

    I’m so sorry, that was inappropriate. But seriously, I am very attracted to smart women.

  7. Hey…

    Spread spectrum ain’t no mere “gadget”…it’s the basis for modern cellphone communications. CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) is simply a digital variant of Spread Spectrum.

  8. On a side note, Lucille Ball claimed that during WWII, fillings in her teeth intercepted radio transmissions from enemy spies, leading to their capture.

  9. Clearly her mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.

  10. sigh …

    CDMA doesn’t use frequency hopping. CDMA uses code-space orthogonality, not frequency orthogonality.

    GSM, on the other hand, does have a frequency hopping mode for interference avoidence.

    Can’t you guys get anything right?

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