AMAC Exclusive by Herald Boas
Many (but not all) of today’s entertainment and sports stars appear to be unpatriotic toward or, unhappy with, the U.S.—the nation which made them famous and prosperous—and which enables them to be free to speak out. It didn’t used to be that way. Not that long ago, most movie stars, artists and athletes were proud of the American society which gave them so much. A few of them even made important and unexpected contributions to the nation’s global success.
Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful and famous movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s. Born Hedwig Kreisler in Vienna in 1913, she was the daughter of two Jewish refugees (her father from Russia; her mother from Hungary) who settled in the vibrant Austro-Hungarian capital and met there. Before she was 18, young Hedy was a theater and film star. She also soon married a Viennese munitions tycoon who helped arm the pre-war European nations, including the budding Nazi groups in several of them. After the 1930s and the Nazi rise to power in Europe, however, Ms. Kreisler (now Mrs. Mandl) had to flee Austria and her husband (who in spite of his usefulness to the Nazis was partly Jewish and was now shunned by them) to emigrate to Hollywood where several directors and movie moguls knew about her from her acting work in Europe.
In her American films she now became Hedy Lamarr, a huge box office movie star, and remarried several times. She knew and hung out with most of the most famous literary, music and film personalities of her era. But the glamorous actress had a secret double life.
During her years married to the munitions tycoon Fritz Mandl, she had overheard in dinner conversations about top secret weapons development in submarine warfare technology, Although not a typical “intellectual,” Ms. Lamarr had some remarkable memory skills and was a creative scientific genius, and had for years used her spare time inventing scientific devices. Now living in Hollywood, and grateful to the U.S. and the Western democracies, she was understandably upset by reports of terrible casualties resulting from German U-boat sinkings. She decided to try to invent a device to counter the Nazi submarines.
At this point, she met one of America’s most avant-garde and famous composers, George Antheil.
Like his contemporary Charles Ives (who was a top insurance industry innovator and musical composer), Antheil had a double life. Like Hedy Lamarr, he liked to invent things.
He had become a prophet of new music with his notorious Ballet Mechanique in 1926 which caused an audience riot, as had Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiere in Paris in 1913. By 1947, he was rated as one of the most performed U.S. composers (along with Samuel Barber, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland).
As was true of so many classical composers of his era, Antheil was drawn to Hollywood to write music for films and make a lot of money. Once there, he soon met Hedy Lamarr at a party, and was astonished to learn that she, too, spent her spare time inventing.
Lamarr soon sought out Antheil, not because he was a famous composer, but because he was an expert in an obscure scientific process she needed to enhance a discovery she had made in submarine warfare technology. Antheil was also deeply upset by early Nazi submarine wartime successes, and the two famed arts personalities secretly began collaborating on a device that would thwart Nazi U-boat activity. By the early 1940s, they had succeeded, and applied for a patent which they eventually received. They also offered their invention to the U.S. military which initially rejected it. Eventually, the military bought the patent, but it was largely unused during the war.
After the war, it was rediscovered by technicians and became known as spread spectrum technology. It is now one of the most important communications technologies in use today, critical to the use of cell phones, Wi-Fi, and so much more. It all began with Hedy Lamarr’s idea and her collaboration with George Antheil.
George Anteil died in 1959, but Hedy Lamarr lived until 2000. While both deserve credit for their key invention, Antheil always pointed out that it was Hedy Lamarr who had the first insight which led to the technology. Lamarr retired from films in 1958, and her contribution to science was for many years ignored. In her 80s, however, some scientists and engineers, aware of what she had done, made efforts to give her the recognition she was due. In 1997, she was given the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Nobel Prize equivalent of honoring inventors. Other major honors soon followed.
For almost half a century, Hedy Lamarr had been mostly silent about her remarkable scientific contribution. Obviously an extraordinary and complex person, she kept many secrets. Only after her death, for example, did her children, and her many film friends and fans, discover that she was Jewish.
For those who would like to read more about the lives and collaboration of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, I strongly recommend Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes, a superb book that tells the story in detail.
The secret saga of Lamarr and Antheil only became known long after they achieved their scientific breakthrough, but however belated, it reminds us of an era when celebrities routinely honored their own country and the generous bounty which it gave them.