The innovations with the greatest impact in shaping human history often have curious origins. For example, one of the foundational technologies of the information age owes its legacy not to a Nobel Prize winner or academic marvel of computer science, but to a midcentury Hollywood starlet with little formal education.
Between 1940 and 1942, actress Hedy Lamarr developed the innovative concept of frequency hopping as a means to enable the U.S. Navy to build jamming-resistant radio-guided torpedoes. The Navy rejected Lamarr’s ideas, only to return to them decades later when her concepts became the underpinning of the science behind advanced communications and information warfare. Once declassified by the military, Lamarr’s frequency-hopping innovation evolved into spread-spectrum technology and helped launch the modern revolution in telecommunications.
For years, her role in this technological renaissance was little known, and only during her twilight years did Lamarr receive a modicum of recognition and respect for her ideas. As the Navy seeks to advance technologically in search of a new offset strategy, its relationship with Lamarr’s legacy has become all the more important. Her story of innovation and rejection provides prescient lessons for the service’s future acceptance of radically innovative technology and concepts.
Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, in 1914. She was gifted with beauty and an energetic passion for performance and, after dropping out of school at age 16, became involved in acting on stage and in early cinema. She was instantly popular, given her presence and looks, but soon became somewhat infamous. Hedy appeared in the Czech film Ekstase (Ecstasy) in cinema’s first acknowledged nude scene.She was barely 18 when the movie was released in January 1933. Later that year, she gained the attention of wealthy, fascist-friendly Austrian arms magnate Fritz Mandl. Romance followed, and they were married before Hedy turned 19.
Mandl viewed her as a convenient trophy wife whose fame and beauty could help him court arms deals with Germany and Italy. In private, Mandl would seek her advice on business matters, but he insisted she remain silent in public. Neither he nor his guests realized that while Hedy sat seemingly uninterested at her husband’s side, she was absorbing their discussions of the intimate workings of weapons.
Mandl’s treatment of Hedy and his associations with anti-Semitic (she was Jewish) and fascist governments resulted in an end to the marriage in 1937, when she escaped to London with plans to fulfill her dream of moving to Hollywood. In the British capital she encountered the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, Louis B. Mayer. An acting contract quickly followed, the Austrian actress relocated to California later that year, and she adopted the surname Lamarr.
MGM seized on Lamarr’s beauty over her ability, labeling her “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” Two years later, Lamarr had a handful of major Hollywood movies behind her and was fully a part of the Tinseltown scene when war erupted in Europe and quickly seemed to draw the United States closer to its flames. She enjoyed her career and loved her new country but wanted to do something to contribute to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The Tinkerer and the Composer
Lamarr believed she owed the United States for her good fortune in Hollywood and wanted to help in its pending fight with Germany. Only her most immediate circle of friends took her seriously. Others easily could identify all of the reasons she should leave the war to experts: She was an immigrant from a belligerent country, an actress, a woman, and had relatively little formal education.
In Hollywood, she had made friends with avant-garde composer George Antheil, who had all but forgone major orchestral work in favor of the cinema because of the steady pay. Antheil was the son of German immigrants; his brother Henry, a U.S. diplomat, was one of the United States’ first casualties in the war. Similarity in background helped the actress and composer form an unusual partnership to assist the U.S. military against the Axis powers. The sinking of the SS City of Benares by a German U-boat on 18 September 1940 and the loss of all on board, including 83 émigré children, solidified their passion to help the United States against Germany.
On the surface, they did not appear to have any aptitude for weapons development. Lamarr, however, stylized herself as a “tinkerer.” She later would invent an advanced tissue dispenser and a type of traffic signal and would help Howard Hughes with aircraft designs that incorporated the first swept wings.
Antheil in many ways was a talented visionary, which resulted in him continually being misunderstood and constantly struggling economically. As a composer, he was inspired by the inventions of the age and predicted a day when automated machines would create synthesized music without human musicians. His most infamous composition, Ballet Mecanique, synchronized 16 player pianos and other mechanized instruments to create a bombastic cacophony of sound that was known to anger listeners and even spark riots when performed.
A Jam-Proof Radio Signal
Together, the unlikely pair analyzed the sinking of the City of Benares, applying their efforts toward the U-boat threat. Lamarr understood the complexities of the issue because of her time with Mandl and knew the Allies were challenged to sink submarines. Radio guidance could improve the effectiveness of antisubmarine torpedoes, but it was easy to use electronic signals to jam a guidance system. The duo determined if they could create a jam-proof radio signal, a methodology could be developed and applied to radio-guided torpedoes. Over the next two years (1940 to 1942), while Lamarr continued to appear in well-received films such as Comrade X, Come Live with Me, and Ziegfield Girl, she and Antheil devoted themselves to creating such a weapon. The pair’s talents yielded a unique, innovative solution to a problem that had evaded some of the best military and engineering minds of the age.
The radio spectrum is allocated to allow public and private use on specific frequencies. If all devices operated on one frequency, the signals would interfere with each other. Frequency hopping is the fundamental principle that allows signals to operate within a certain frequency range without creating mutual inference issues.
The heart of Lamarr and Antheil’s breakthrough was the synchronization of a weapon system and a radio-control mechanism to enable rapid, sequenced movement of the control frequency across a spectrum of radio energy. Lamarr stated the idea was hers, and some of the mechanics of implementation, such as the use of perforated reels within their mechanism, were Antheil’s. Rather than use one radio frequency, which could be identified and jammed, they would use dozens (88 to be exact); paired encoding devices would direct frequency changes over a portion of the radio spectrum.
An adversary could jam a specific frequency, but it would impact control of the weapon system for only the briefest of moments. Using their concept, a launched torpedo would receive near-constant target position updates from the firing platform (or another nearby unit), allowing continual course correction toward the target and thereby dramatically increasing weapon’s lethality. Lamarr called the rapid movement across the frequency spectrum “hopping,” saying the invention allowed a radio signal to “hop around from radio frequency to radio frequency.”
In essence, a nearly infinite number of devices can operate within a range of frequencies and never interfere with one another because they are constantly, minutely, and dynamically, changing the frequencies on which they are operating. Even if multiple devices are on the same exact frequency, they are there for only infinitesimal fractions of a second. In the modern age, frequency hopping—now better known as spread spectrum—is the foundational technology behind bandwidth allocation for code-division multiple access (CDMA) mobile phone networks, the Global Positioning System, Bluetooth technology, and wifi, not to mention a multitude of secure, jam-resistant military technologies.
Success and Rejection
Lamarr’s fame garnered interest in the idea from the National Inventor’s Council, a government agency developed in partnership with the War Department to fast-track innovation and inventions to the battlefield. The council arranged for the inventors to work with a physicist from the California Institute of Technology to further develop the concept, and with other individuals to help with the patent process so a complete idea could be provided to the military in useable form.
The work continued, and in 1941 some of its contents were leaked to the media, likely in an effort to promote Lamarr’s movies. The New York Times stated Lamarr was working on a “Red Hot” invention so “vital” to national defense “government officials will not allow publication of its details.” Almost a year later, on 11 August 1942, Lamarr and Antheil received U.S. Patent Number 2,292,387 for their invention of a “Secret Communication System.” According to their patent:
[The] invention relates broadly to secret communication systems involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies, and is especially useful in the remote control of dirigible craft, such as torpedoes.
An object of the invention is to provide a method of secret communication which is relatively simple and reliable in operation, but at the same time is difficult to discover or decipher.
The communication system, with its emphasis on torpedo design and methodology improvement, naturally was turned over to the Navy for evaluation. But the service was reluctant to accept advice or developments from outside, and even more so from a Hollywood starlet and a composer known as “the bad boy of music.” It thanked the inventors, classified their work as top secret, and locked it away in a safe.
Lamarr and Antheil believed the Navy did not understand or appreciate the device or its applications. According to Antheil, one of the evaluation board officers did not realize that the allusion of the synchronization mechanism to a player piano was merely a conceptual aide and believed the inventors had actually recommended putting pianos into torpedoes. (The metaphorical language is clear in the patent.) Antheil explained the whole system would need to be no larger than a pocket watch, but his and Lamarr’s attempts to overcome the naval bureaucracy failed.
To the duo, the rejection seemed contemptuous, especially when the military suggested Lamarr put her beauty (not her brains) to good use and sell war bonds rather than waste her time attempting to invent weapons. Lamarr was a frequent presence at USO events and war-bond rallies for the next years. During one period, she single-handedly raised $25 million (about $343 million today). Adding to the Navy’s rejection, in 1942 the government seized her patent as the property of an alien with ties to a foreign adversarial power, since she had yet to become a U.S. citizen.
Frequency Hopping = Spread Spectrum
The Secret Communication System, with its innovative approach to frequency hopping, remained classified and seemingly forgotten. World War II ended, and the Navy found itself embroiled in the Cold War. Tracking Soviet submarines was one of its new challenges, and the Navy began working with industry on developing miniature sonar devices, to become known colloquially as sonobuoys, which could be deployed from aircraft to relay acoustic data for submarine detection, location, and tracking. Signal jamming again was a problem; an unsecure signal between the sonobuoy and the host aircraft could be disrupted.
As early as 1955, the Navy permitted limited access to Patent 2,292,387, hoping inventors could use the innovation to protect the link between buoy and aircraft. Meanwhile, the Navy was working with Sylvania on developing secure communications systems; again, access to Lamarr and Antheil’s Secret Communication System was permitted. By the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, frequency-hopping technology was used in the communications systems of the ships enforcing the naval quarantine of Cuba.
During the 1960s, most of the information technology being developed by or for the armed forces incorporated Lamarr and Antheil’s frequency-hopping concepts. In the mid-1970s, amid an explosion in telecommunication industries, their innovations slowly were made available to commercial entities. This release of the patent at the start of major advances in mobile communications technology rapidly advanced the use of frequency hopping.
Even after the explosion in telecommunication sciences that was in large part due to Lamarr and Antheil’s concepts and patents, they received no attribution, royalties, or credit from the military or the communications industry.
The Challenge of Innovation
The military dismissed the Secret Communication System largely because of sexist biases about women’s roles that were amplified by Lamarr’s screen persona. A modern culture of equal opportunity attests that these biases are no longer part of Navy ethics and culture; the present-day service rejects sexist attitudes and has a greater understanding of gender equality and equity. Yet how would the present-day Navy respond if a popular, photogenic actress—say, Jennifer Lawrence—walked into the Chief of Naval Operations’ office and said she had invented a way to defeat adversary antiship ballistic missiles? Would she be treated any differently than Lamarr? The innovator would not be taken seriously—not because of gender, but because of the tendency to resist ideas and changes initiated from outside an organization.
Complex organizations such as the Navy are structured to produce repeatable and reliable results. A standard deviation within norms is accepted, but the service culture eschews change that could engender risk. By necessity, change is tightly managed and by design lumbering, with such managed change being a hallmark of excellence for post–World War II military organizations because of reliability and constancy.
But the information age is ever-more dictated by entities able to implement agile, innovative approaches that enable them to create, overcome, or extend critical advantages. Industrial-age hierarchies, such as modern militaries or global enterprises, see their advantages threatened by the new adaptive abilities and, to maintain their edge, often wish to harness the innovative energy of the information world but fail to adapt their organizations to be receptive to change. A paradox therefore exists as these entities require innovation but are not structured to achieve or implement radically new ideas.
The same dynamics that create a structure of repeatable, reliable successes create a natural distrust or diminutization of external actors who seek to change “their” organizations. The legacy of the Navy’s rejection of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s Secret Communication System is a reminder of these challenges and a call to adapt Navy culture to be more open to radical and different ideas from many sources—internal and external—and evaluate them not from parochial concerns but on their potential to expand the Navy’s sea power advantage.
Hedy Lamarr’s film career petered out in the 1950s, and she became increasingly reclusive. In the last years of her life, she lived in obscurity, virtually forgotten and unrecognized for her part in sparking the information age. In the late 1990s, small pockets of the tech industry began to recognize her role as an innovator, with further acknowledgement and increasing interest in her discoveries in the years leading up to and after her death in 2000.
In 2017, the market value of Lamarr and Antheil’s concept of frequency hopping was estimated at $30 billion. But neither they nor their heirs have received any royalties for the invention that facilitated modern communications. When asked about how it felt not to have been recognized for developing frequency-hopping/spread-spectrum concepts, she responded by quoting educator Kent Keith: “The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.”
“Accenture Study: Innovation Efforts Falling Short Despite Increased Investment,” Accenture, 2013, newsroom.accenture.com/subjects/supply-chain-management/accenture-study-innovation-efforts-falling-short-despite-increased-investment.htm.
CAPT David Adams, USN (Ret.); CAPT Jeff Cares, USN (Ret.); LCDR Brett Morash, USN (Ret.); Albert Nofi; Antonio Siordia; and CAPT David Soldow, USN, “SSG Served as an Innovation Incubator,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 4 (April 2017), www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017-04/ssg-served-innovation-incubator.
George Antheil, The Bad Boy of Music (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1945).
Joyce Bedi, “A Movie Star, Some Player Pianos, and Torpedoes,” Smithsonian Institution, 12 November 2015, invention.si.edu/movie-star-some-player-pianos-and-torpedoes.
Joyce Bedi, “Exploring the History of Women Inventors,” Smithsonian Institution, 3 March 2005, invention.si.edu/exploring-history-women-inventors.
Maha Bouzeid, “Why Is Innovation So Difficult?” The Project Lab, 2 November 2011, blog.projectplace.com/why-is-innovation-so-difficult.
Michael Castelluccio, “Beauty and the U-boats—Wi-Fi’s Beginning,” Strategic Finance, August 2013, 67.
Robert P. Crease, “Inventing Beauty: Robert P. Crease Revels in the Life of a Hollywood Goddess Who Pioneered Wireless Technology,” review of Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breadkthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes, Nature 479 (11 November 2011): 474.
Charles K. Davis, “Spread Spectrum: A Protocol With a Past and a Future,” Phi Kappa Phi Forum 86, no. 4 (26 September 2006): 4.
Alexandra Dean, writer/director, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2018), documentary.
Jeff DeGraff, “Infographic: Why Innovation Is So Hard,” Inc, 15 November 2015, www.inc.com/jeff-degraff/infographic-why-innovation-is-so-hard.html.
Jeff DeGraff, The Innovation Code: The Creative Power of Constructive Conflict (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017).
John Dickerson, “Gen. James Mattis, USMC: The General Who Is Fighting a Constant Battle to Keep the Military Innovating,” Slate, www.slate.com/articles/technology/top_right/2011/08/gen_james_mattis_usmc.html.
Patricia Fara, “Weird Sisters? Biographies of Female Scientists Perpetuate Stereotypes,” Nature 495 (7 March 2013); 43.
Ron Grossman, “Brainy Beauty: Hedy Lamarr Was More Than Just a Pretty Face She Also Invented a Process That’s Key to Cordless-Phone Technology,” Chicago Tribune, 31 March 1997.
Frank Hayes, “The Story So Far,” Computer World 36, no. 51 (16 December 2002).
“Hedy Lamarr Inventor,” The New York Times, 1 October 1941.
Edward D. Hess, “Why Is Innovation So Hard?” Forbes, 4 August 2014, www.forbes.com/sites/darden/2014/08/04/why-is-innovation-so-hard/#3bd0205346fd.
Peter Y. Hong, “A Starlet’s Secret Life as Inventor,” Microwave Journal (February 1999): 70.
Briget Kinsella, “Richard Rhodes, The Atom Bomb, and Hedy LaMarr,” Publishers Weekly, July 2010, www.publishersweekly.com.
Fleming Meeks, “I Guess They Just Take and Forget About a Person,” Forbes, 14 May 1990, 136–38.
Raghav Narsalay, Jitendra Kavathekar, and David Light, “A Hands-Off Approach to Open Innovation Doesn’t Work,” Harvard Business Review, 3 May 2016.
Richard Rhodes, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World (New York: Random House, 2011).
Sarah Richardson, “What Fools These Mortals Be,” American History, April 2015.
Ruth Sellers, “Secret Spreading,” World & I 18, no. 4 (April 2003).
U.S. Patent Office, Patent Number 2,292,387, “Secret Communications System,” Hedy Kiesler Markey and George Antheil, application 10 June 1941.