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The Starlet Who Gave Us Cell Phones
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Courageous Leadership

The Starlet Who Gave Us Cell Phones

The year was 1942 and this Hollywood starlet was attending a dinner party where she engaged in a passionate discussion with a music composer about a scientific approach to help the US Navy destroy enemy ships. She became so excited about the idea that when she left the party, she scrawled her phone number in lipstick on his windshield so she could make sure they reconnected. They soon collaborated on an idea that eventually led to the technology that we use everyday in our cell phones.

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesel in Vienna, Austria in 1914. Her mother was a pianist and her father enjoyed technology and shared his ideas about technology with his young daughter.

As a teenager, she became interested in acting and landed her first significant role in 1933 in a movie entitled Ecstasy in which she played the role of a young woman in a lifeless marriage. She received international renown for appearing nude in several scenes and for portraying motion picture’s first sexual orgasm. The movie was banned in many countries including the US but she was quickly acknowledged as the most beautiful woman in Europe.

Kiesel was in a lifeless marriage herself with her older and controlling husband, Friedrich Mandl who was a munitions Industrialist. He was a successful businessman who held frequent parties at his home where he hosted guests including Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Hedwig travelled with him to business meetings where she listened attentively and acquired knowledge of warfare technology that would become useful to her just 10 years later.

As she matured, she realized that she could not tolerate the controlling nature of her husband and decided to secret herself out of Austria in 1937, pretending she was a maid so she could escape without being seen.

Once safely out of the country, she landed in London where she met Louis B. Meyer who signed her to a $500/week Hollywood contract with MGM and had her change her name to Hedy Lamarr. Soon she was in the United States where her movie studio promoted her to "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World". She appeared on the big screen in her first American film, Algiers, in 1939 and the movie and Ms. Lamarr were a box office hit. Lamarr went on to make many other films with

Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy (Boom Town) and Victor Mature (Samson and Delilah) where she enjoyed her greatest commercial success.

During WW II, Ms. Lamarr was a passionate opponent of Nazi Germany and wanted to contribute to the war effort. As Fredrich Mandl's wife, she had observed closely the development of remote controlled torpedoes. These torpedoes, which used radio frequencies, were vulnerable to disruption by jamming the signal that was controlling the direction of the torpedo. Lamarr had the idea that by changing the radio frequency on a continuous basis while it was in the water, the Navy could insure that the torpedoes hit their targets on a more accurate basis.

At that party, she solicited the advice of music composer George Antheil and asked him to help her construct a device that would allow the signal to be synchronized

between the torpedo and the ship. Together, they laid out a system of 88 frequencies based on the number of keys on a piano. In 1942, they received a patent for a "Secret Communication System" which was essentially a frequency hopping device that changed the signal between the transmitter on the ship and the receiver on the torpedo.

While the Navy did not use Lamarr's invention during WW II, the concept was used nearly 20 years later during the Cuban missile crisis as a way of insuring that communication between naval vessels could be undertaken in a secure manner. The technology continued to spread as digital technology took hold and by the 1980s, the idea of frequency hopping melded into "spread spectrum" which allowed today's cell phones to use multiple frequencies while providing security for calls.

Hedy Lamarr once quipped that "any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." Hedy Lamarr was definitely gorgeous, but as the co-inventor of wireless technology, she was anything but stupid.

My thanks to Al Lewis for suggesting Hedy Lamar's story. If you know of a courageous leader you would like to see in this column please send me an email at [email protected] or tweet me @richardcitrin


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