The Truth About Hedy Lamarr


Written by Brandon Baum,  of Baum Legal and Practice Center Contributor.

It seems the entire Internet recently discovered the Hedy Lamarr patent story. Hedy Lamarr was a beautiful actress in the 1930′s-40′s, who was once dubbed “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” She also is the named co-inventor on a patent for an anti-jamming system for guiding torpedoes.  The system relied on a clever “frequency hopping” scheme, employing a player piano roll to switch frequencies. Frequency hopping is a type of spread spectrum technology that eventually made its way into the modern cell phone. Great story right? Beautiful actress is secretly a brilliant inventor. 

I first learned of the story while gathering prior art to defeat a patent that was asserted against a major CDMA provider. While the reference wasn’t that great as prior art, we nevertheless included it due to the interesting story behind it. How often does a prior art patent have sex appeal?

However, the story really is a bit fantastical, isn’t it? At 18, Ms. Lamarr was acting in soft-porn in Europe, and by 19 she was married to a wealthy industrialist. She didn’t have any education or background in science or technology.  So I did a little research to see if there was more to the story, and here’s what I found. It seems her co-inventor, George Anthiel, was a brilliant composer and inventor, who managed to synchronize numerous player pianos for a one-man show at Carnegie Hall. Using synchronized player piano rolls was the inventive *trick* for implementing the frequency-hopping scheme in the Anthiel-Lamarr patent.

Lamarr first met Anthiel (a neighbor) when she went to ask him about breast augmentation, as he was also an expert on glands who wrote for Esquire magazine. None of that necessarily undermines Hedy Lamarr’s role as a co-inventor, of course. But then there’s this contemporaneous interview with the military newspaper “Stars and Stripes,” in which Hedy explained how she came up with her invention.

 According to the article:

 “Hedy modestly admitted she did only ‘creative work on the invention,’ while the composer and author, George Antheil, ‘did the really important chemical part.

Hedy was not too clear about how the device worked, but she remembered that she and Anthiel sat down on her living room rug and were using a silver match box with the matches simulating the wiring of the invented ‘thing.’ She said it was lots more fun being scientific than going to the movies.”

“Important chemical part”? “On the living room rug”? Call me skeptical, but I suspect George Anthiel had other motivations for including Hedy as a co-inventor.

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One Response to “The Truth About Hedy Lamarr”

  1. smidoid says:

    Motivations or not, this story has become a poster child of angry feminists who want to remove Antheil from history and credit Lamarr with the invention of the spread-spectrum.

    I can’t follow patents (not even the ones for stuff I’ve designed!) so i won’t pretend I can follow this one – but surely, frequency hopping of some form was around long before this. Earliest I can figure is Tesla in 1903, if I recall.

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