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Hedy Lamarr: The 40’s “Bombshell” Actress Behind GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 2, 2023 3:00 am

Hedy Lamarr: The 40’s “Bombshell” Actress Behind GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 2, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, she was one of the most beautiful and accomplished actresses of her day. But she was also a world-class mind, behind some of America’s most cutting-edge modern technology.

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Circle is a future where money will travel at the speed of internet for fractions of a penny and no one will think about it because it will just be the way we work. Visit slash podcast. Most TVs are smart nowadays, but with busy home screens and remotes with too many or too few buttons, smart shouldn't mean complicated. That's why Roku TV is the smart TV made easy. The customizable home screen puts your inputs, streaming favorites like iHeart and free live TV all in one place. From simple settings anyone can understand, automatic updates with the latest features and much more, Roku TV is more than a smart TV, it's a better TV. Learn more today at Happy streaming. Today we have Faith bringing us the story of Hedy Lamarr.

Take it away, Faith. Famous Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr was born in Austria in 1914. By the mid 1940s, she became the world's first superstar in Hollywood. She was known for her striking beauty and her at times scandalous movie appearances. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes wrote a book titled Hedy's Folly, the life and breakthrough inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in the world. This book helps unpack the life of a woman that perhaps we thought we knew.

Here is Richard Rhodes. When she walked into a room, she actually stopped conversations. People would be startled by her appearance. The sad tragedy of her life in a way, though, was that she was also highly intelligent. And since she was so strikingly beautiful, hardly anyone ever noticed her intelligence. It wasn't factored into the kind of role she was given in movies, where she usually played some conventionally beautiful woman falling in and out of love with a handsome leading man. I mean, the tragedy of this woman was that she was, as she pointed out, more than a pretty face. She liked to say sarcastically, I can tell you how to be glamorous.

All you have to do is stand still and look stupid. Growing up in Vienna, her parents were wealthy. Her father was a Jewish banker and an athlete. Her mother had trained as a concert pianist, and she grew up in what was a really multicultural and multi-religious community in Vienna just around the time and after the time of the First World War.

So a very cultured world. Vienna was just one of the centers of culture in those days, and particularly of theater. And she fell in love with theater. She was a good actress.

She was smart and she learned to play roles and much more than the roles she later would play in American films ever tested her for. She also became kind of the catch of the day in Austria, exactly because of her beauty on the one hand and her fame on the other. And the second richest man in Austria decided he wanted her for his art piece and courted her.

His name was Fritz Mendel. This relationship was doomed from the start. He had pursued her for her beauty. And because of that, he also was terribly jealous and insecure, making him quite a horrible husband. I mean, he had maids picking up the extension whenever she was talking with friends on the phone and had her followed and so forth. He was quite certain that she was cheating on him, which as far as I understand, she was not. So on the one hand, it was a glamorous life with castles and beautiful apartments in Vienna.

But on the other hand, she said one time she felt as if she was in a golden cage because she really was locked away. It was now 1934, and pretty soon the Nazis would take over Austria. Heady wanted to get out of Austria to pursue her dream of becoming a famous Hollywood actress. Of course, her jealous husband thought it was in bad taste for her to be an actress, so she decided to leave him.

The truth is, as I found when I researched the newspapers in New York and in Vienna, that it was quite a public divorce as one might imagine. So off she went, first to Paris and then to London, and she had her jewelry to pawn to put together a kind of nest egg. It happened at that particular point in time that a metro-golden mayor, Louis B. Mayer, the director, was in London and traveling around Europe buying up the contracts of Jewish artists who understood that it was time to get out of Europe ahead of the Nazi attack on the Jews. He was able to get people to sign contracts with fairly low wages with his studio for up to eight years at a time. So he really was kind of buying jobs with lots of European actors.

Heady wasn't going to be conned into letting that happen to her. So when he made an offer to her after she met him in London, she basically said, now that that's not nearly sufficient, and walked out. That intrigued him, and then she found out what ship he was sailing back to the United States on, booked passage on the same ship, made sure he saw her playing deck tennis with handsome young men on the ship. And by the time they arrived in New York, she had a contract for a pretty good weekly salary for only three years and a commitment to make a certain number of films. So she was launched. She had charmed the director of MGM into hiring her for the price that she wanted. There's no doubt that while her beauty at times was a burden, at other times she used it as a tool to get what she needed.

She got to the States and soon started her new career as an actress. And you've been listening to Richard Rhodes, and he's the author of Heady's Folly, the life and breakthrough inventions of Heady Lamar, the most beautiful woman in the world, and what a story we're hearing so far. And my goodness, we learn right away what a tough negotiator Heady Lamar is. Not eight years, no.

Down to three years, she whittles Louis B. Meyer, and for more money too. When we come back, this remarkable life, this remarkable American life, Heady Lamar's life continues here on Our American Stories. Music Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. A place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Listen to Echoes of History, Assassin's vs Templars on iHeart or wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue with our American stories and we've been listening to the story of a famous actress from the 1940s, Petey Lamar. She had just arrived from Europe and was beginning her acting career in the States. Her first film with MGM was with French-American actor Charles Boyer.

We pick up with author Richard Rhodes describing Petey's breakout into Hollywood. There's a moment in the film, and it was really Petey's debut in Hollywood, where she steps out of a doorway into a lovely kind of sunlight. And she burst on the world as this extraordinarily beautiful woman and really became a star overnight as a result.

So from there, she made a few more films with the Metro-Golden Mayor. She, like so many people who immigrated to the United States out of that terrible world of pre-World War II Europe, was immensely grateful to the country for taking her in and she became a citizen around, I think, 1942 or 43 after she had spent the prerequisite time living in the United States. While she loved her new home, the United States, and was grateful to be where she was, her heart still went out to those in Europe. During the Great Blitz of London, when the Germans began bombing London relentlessly, the English moved their children out of London to the countryside, or in large numbers they were shipped to Canada. This was the first time in history that countries were bombing cities and civilian areas.

In attempts to save them, the British sent their children away. Hetty one day, following this in the newspapers, was horrified to read that a shipload of children, one of the liners that was being used to transport them, had been torpedoed by a German submarine and had sunk with, I think, 82 children were killed in that particular assault. By then, she had done something really quite unusual for Hollywood. She didn't drink.

She didn't like to go to loud parties. But in order to fill her time between movies, she had to find some other way to occupy herself and she took up inventing. She invented some new kind of stoplight. She invented a chair on a pivot that could be swung into a shower so that someone who couldn't stand up in the shower could take a shower and then swing back out in the chair and dry themselves off. So she was kind of a classic inventor in that she had no technical training particularly.

But she had a way of looking at the world that asked, how can you fix this problem, this large or small problem that exists? So when she read about the German submarines torpedoing all these English ships, particularly the ones with children on them, and realized that this was Austria and Germany was where she came from and that it was horrible that her background should somehow be tied in with this terrible business of killing civilians, she decided she would figure out a way to make it more possible than it was at the time to attack and destroy a submarine. Unfortunately, the torpedoes of the day didn't have any real guidance systems on them. You would kind of move as close as you could and aim the torpedo in the general direction of the submarine or rather where the submarine would be when you thought the torpedo would meet the submarine and then you'd launch and almost all of the torpedoes missed their targets. So she thought, well, there must be a way to guide a torpedo. And the way she thought of was using radio. A plane or a surface ship with a radio transmitter could transmit a signal to a torpedo that was probably, let's say, towing a wire antenna behind it on the surface to pick up the signal. And the signal could direct the rudder on the torpedo left or right and guide the torpedo in real time to the submarine and blow up the submarine and therefore prevent the children from being killed. While the United States had not yet entered the war, there was an organization set up where inventors could send their wartime invention ideas to the government. There were something like 300,000 submissions in the course of the Second World War.

Unfortunately, almost none of which ever got developed into a workable instrument. That's where Hedy turned to find support for her idea of a radio-controlled torpedo. Now, she also had found a collaborator.

This was another colorful figure from the 10s and 20s of the century named George Antile, an American composer of avant-garde music and a concert pianist. They met at a dinner party with some friends and immediately bonded over the fact that they were both very interested in the European war. Hedy broached the idea of her torpedo.

Antile was immediately interested. The question became, what kind of radio control system could you use? There were no digital chips in those days.

What would actually tell the torpedo how to direct itself? Antile's music had featured a number of compositions, some of them quite notorious, using player pianos. A player piano is operated by a scroll of paper with holes in it that rolls past a vacuum pipe. Where there's a hole, air is sucked in, and that triggers the mechanism that makes a key activate on the piano. Antile imagined that you could probably make a miniature version of one of these scrolls.

You could make them out of something more durable than paper, obviously. And that that device, in fact, he actually gave the scroll that they used in their model 88 holes, rather like the keys on a piano. So they had, then, Hedy's original idea for a radio-controlled torpedo. They wanted one, however, that couldn't be jammed by a radio signal, because if somebody was on the enemy side with picking up radio signals, and they heard the signal being transmitted from the ship to the torpedo, they could, by producing a sound on the same frequency, basically jam the signal.

So how do you solve that problem? Well, there Hedy got her idea from one of the world's first remote control boxes that had ever been used. She bought a very expensive radio, and radios in those days were the sizes of refrigerators. She bought a remote control for her living room radio that was basically like the dial on an old dial phone. But it was a remote control, and she thought, well, something like that would work. And that's where the notion of having multiple frequencies with the signal jumping from frequency to frequency in a more or less random pattern would allow the transmitter to send a signal to the receiver in the torpedo that would jump around all over 88 different frequencies and that no one could follow fast enough with a jamming signal. So the signal could go through, it couldn't be jammed.

Here was a really great idea. They put it all together with the help of a physicist specialist in electronics who was loaned to them by the National Inventors Council, the organization I mentioned that was there to make these inventions possibly useful to the government. So obviously the National Inventors Council thought this was a worthy project, and indeed it was.

It probably would have worked very well. But when they took it to the Navy, the obvious place to take it once you had worked out the basic ideas and had a blueprint for an invention, which by the way, she and George Antile, Hedy and George then patented. It was patented under Hedy's maiden name, which at that time was Markey. So the patent was assigned to Hedwig Markey and George Antile. And under that name, it was given to them as a protection for their invention.

They then donated this patent to the U.S. Navy. And you've been listening to Richard Rhodes, the author of the definitive biography of Hedy Lamarr, when we come back, more of this remarkable story, Hedy Lamarr's story, here on Our American Story. State Farm knows it's important to help folks manage the risks of everyday life, while also getting them closer to realizing their dreams. Those dreams can include attaining financial knowledge, freedom, and empowerment. On his podcast, Life as a Gringo, host, Dramos, talks about money management, investments, and the steps he's taken to work towards his financial goals.

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You can take care of yourself and your loved ones. Let State Farm provide you with that support. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. Learn more at

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Listen to Echoes of History, Assassins vs. Templars on iHeart, or wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue with our American stories and we're about to hear the final part of famous Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr's story. We learned that Hedy was not only beautiful, but she was brilliant as well. Her and her composer friend George Antile had created this frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology and then handed it over to the Navy. We return to faith with the rest of the story. After passing it off to the Navy, the Navy stamped it Top Secret, and they didn't hear about it for a long time. Hedy went on to live her life.

She had two children and ended up getting married a total of six times, the longest marriage lasting about seven years. After a little over a decade in the early 1950s, the idea for the radio-controlled torpedo was resurrected. The technology would soon prove itself to be incredibly useful. When someone pulled it off the shelf and tossed it over to one of the many small engineering firms that the military keeps and maintains to develop ideas. And the engineer who looked it over thought, wow, this is an interesting idea, not for torpedoes, but for ship-to-ship communications, because it was something that couldn't be jammed. So the first application of the Marquis-Entile invention came in the early 1950s in the form of a communications system between a plane and what's called a sonoboy.

A boy, of course, is an object that's floating in the ocean. This particular boy had a sonar system on its underside, underwater, that would project sonar signals down through the water to listen for submarines. The inventor, who spoke of it later as a very successful invention, said this was a perfect way to make sure we had a signal that was secure between the plane that would fly over and pick up the communications from the sonoboy and from the sonoboy itself. But pretty quickly, the Navy realized what an efficient way this was to talk from ship-to-ship. And the ships, for example, that were sent down to Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 were all fitted with radio systems that used the patent that had been developed by Hedy Lamarr and George Entile.

After that, it spread through the military. It became a pretty standard kind of communications system. In the 1970s, a lot of these World War II and that era military secret inventions were declassified under Jimmy Carter as a way of boosting commercial development of these things. And this invention was picked up and used in some of the early car telephones, which of course preceded the kind of cellphones we have now, but had a similar problem that was not privacy so much as the fact that if you had one car telephone talking to another car telephone on one frequency, within a given city there would only be about a hundred frequencies that you could use. That would mean that no more than a couple hundred cars could be talking to each other at the same time, and that obviously was not a commercially viable proposition.

But if you could use this jumping frequency hopping, as Hedy called it, which came to be called spread spectrum when they changed it slightly, but it was basically the same idea that you move a signal around among different frequencies. With that, thousands of cars could talk to each other at the same time, and no one would really hear more than an occasional maybe almost inaudible blip if two of the signals crossed each other and blotted each other out. Then later on it was used as the basis for what we call Bluetooth today, and still is used in Bluetooth. It didn't become the basis for all of our cellphones, really because it was slightly more expensive to manufacture the system than it is for the one that's used in cellphones in the United States.

So the manufacturers decided they'd rather go with something that wasn't quite as good, actually, but that didn't cost them quite so much to make. There are, I think, cellphone systems elsewhere in the world, however, that do use the spread spectrum frequency hopping system. So what started out as a laudable interest in trying to save the lives of English children became then a patent that no one saw any use for for about ten years, and then it became a superb communication system for the Navy. Then it spread through the military. Then it was used, I think the GPS system that we all operate on these days is another example of the Hedy Lamarr, George Antile spread spectrum system that communicates back and forth between the satellites overhead and all of our ground systems.

And then eventually Bluetooth, which of course is just universal for short distance communication with all sorts of smart equipment that we have around us today. The one piece left in the story is Hedy's lingering feeling as she got older that she had never been given proper credit for this invention. She didn't want the money, she had given the patent to the Navy, but she kind of felt that the very least that the nation could do for this gift she had given it was to thank her in some way. But of course it had all been lost in the fact that her name on the patent wasn't Hedy Lamarr, it was Hedvig Markey. A man in Colorado who was working on digital communication stumbled upon the Markey-Antile patent and wondered who these people were and why their patent for this frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology was just sitting there. He started looking into it and discovered to his delight that Hedvig Markey was Hedy Lamarr.

He had, like so many men of his age, had a crush on Hedy when he was a teenager during the Second World War, and the idea that she might have not ever received credit for this really bothered him. All of this culminated in the inventors kind of getting together and agreeing that she should receive an award. And she did.

In the early 1990s, it was the Pioneer Freedom Foundation in San Francisco, which is devoted to recognizing the work of early digital pioneers. She obviously fit that category. She by then had had so many plastic surgeries that she really had ruined her face and she no longer went out in public. But she had a son who did and who came to San Francisco and received the award for her. She had made a tape for him, which he played to the conference. In it she said basically, Thank you, I appreciate finally being recognized.

But she had said to her son when he called her before this event and told her what was coming up, she had said in an inimical Hollywood style, Well, it's about time. Then her last dream in life, this was a person who really did accomplish the things she wanted to accomplish. Her last goal in life was to live to the turn of the century, which she did. She died in January of the year 2000 in her little house in Florida near her children. Happy woman and now I think she was never happy in love, but she did some extraordinary things in her life. And great job on that faith and what a story.

And my goodness, it wasn't the money she ever wanted, but getting that recognition by the Pioneer Freedom Foundation in San Francisco, a big deal to her. Hedy Lamarr's story here on Our American Stories. Music Inspired by Ubisoft's famous video game series Assassin's Creed, the Echoes of History podcast offers a deep and fascinating dive into history. In this season's Assassin vs Templars, these two organizations have a rich history that takes its root in the medieval era and the time of the Crusades within the Assassin's Creed universe. Hosted by Dan Snow and Matt Lewis from History Hit, each episode offers us a history of these two not-so-secret societies. New episodes weekly.

Listen to Echoes of History, Assassin's vs Templars on iHeart or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Malcolm Gladwell. I live way out in the country. I drive everywhere.

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