It is possible that no one reading this blog remembers Hedwig Eva Kiesler, but she was one of the most remarkable women in history. If you are reading this via a WiFi connection; if you are using a 4G cell phone; or if you utilize Bluetooth devices in your daily routine, you can thank the brilliant Ms. Kiesler for developing the earliest technological advances that made those inventions possible. That she was a math and science wizard is without doubt. She was also the “most beautiful woman in the world,” according to MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Born in Austria, she was married six times and entranced dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. As an actress, the young lady caused a stir throughout the world when, in 1933, she starred in a film called Ecstasy. The most popular movie in 1933 was King Kong staring Fay Wray, but the movie everyone was talking about in 1933 was the one in which Hedwig Kiesler appeared completely nude…Ecstasy. The scandalous film was banned practically everywhere, which, of course, made it more valuable and desirable. Benito Mussolini kept a copy of the film in his library, and considered it among his most valued possessions. The fact that Hedwig was a Jew who hated Nazis and Fascism only seemed to add to her allure as far as Il Duce was concerned.
“Who was this amazing woman?” I hope you are screaming by now. Here is a very abbreviated version of her story. As Hitler was beginning what he hoped would be the conquest of Europe, Hedwig was married to one of the Nazi Reich’s leading arms developers. Ms. Kiesler hated the Nazis, a fact that was not lost on her husband, who imprisoned his wife in his castle until she was able to escape in 1937. She traveled to the United States, where she met Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer. Mayer saw great potential as an actress in the beautiful young woman, and offered to make her a star of his movies on one condition. Hedwig Kiesler was already known throughout the world for her nude role in Ecstasy, and Mayer didn’t want all the negative baggage her name would bring to his studio. Upon signing a contract with MGM, Hedwig Eva Kiesler forever became known as a name more familiar to us today…Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy Lamarr appeared in more than thirty movies in her career, working with industry giants such as James Stewart, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, and Clark Gable. After being dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world by Louis Mayer, Lamarr was quoted as saying, ““Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
The actress’ more secretive life, however, proved she was anything but stupid. Inspired by three things – her hate of the Nazis, the knowledge of weapons and munitions she had gleaned from her Nazi husband, and the help of composer George Antheil, she developed a new kind of communications system that would prevent guidance systems of torpedoes from being “jammed” by German signals, and ensured they would always reach their intended targets. The musician, Anthiel, had devised a way to synchronize his melodies across twelve player pianos at once, creating a stereophonic sound that had never been heard before. Inventor Lamarr devised a way to constantly change radio frequencies to confound the enemy signals and, adapting Anthiel’s musical synchronization, to synchronize the frequency changes between a weapon’s receiver and transmitter. She and Antheil were awarded a patent for the invention in 1942. They promptly gave the patent (note “gave,” not “sold”) to the U.S. Navy. It was an invention that could have shortened the war and saved countless lives, but the Navy saw no merit to the technology, and buried the patent in a cabinet, not to be seen again for many years.
It was not until the 1960s and the Cuban Missile Crisis that some enterprising Navy researcher dusted off the old patent and discovered it offered great possibilities for keeping wireless transmissions secret from prying Russian ears. The rest, as they say, is history. As I mentioned at the beginning of this missive, if you use WiFi technology, Bluetooth, a 4G cell phone or just about any other type of wireless device, you can thank the lady who starred in a skin flick at age 20, went on to become a world-famous actress who was called “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and all the while was a math and science genius who was instrumental in designing the basis for all of the wireless technology we use today.
Ms. Lamarr became something of a recluse after her acting career waned. She never made any money from her great technological breakthrough and, even more sadly, received no personal or professional acknowledgement for the great invention for decades. Finally, in 1997, Hedy was granted an Electronic Frontier Foundation Award for her scientific work. Always quick with a sassy reply, her reaction was, “Well, it’s about time!”