The subject of a recent documentary, the Austrian-American actress Hedy Lamarr was one of cinema’s first female sex symbols; her best known Hollywood role was that of the titular temptress in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah. But her greatest contribution might well have been in engineering, as co-inventor of a technique for communicating across radio frequencies. Lamarr kept her Jewish origins a secret for most of her career—even her children were surprised to learn of it. In his review of the documentary, J. Hoberman writes:
Hers was a particular sort of Jewish life. Hedwig Kiesler was the only child of wealthy Jewish parents living in Döbling, an affluent, heavily Jewish neighborhood in north-central Vienna. Her father was a bank manager; her mother a would-be concert pianist who converted to Catholicism. Hedy attended a predominantly Jewish secondary school whose students had included Sigmund Freud’s daughters. . . .
Hedy married the millionaire munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, a seller of arms to Nazi Germany despite his Jewish heritage. The wedding was Catholic; the marriage was stormy. Hedy escaped Mandl and Austria on her third attempt, a year ahead of the German Anschluss. After a brief time in London, where she attracted the attention of Louis B. Mayer, she arrived in America at twenty-two, with no English, a new last name, and a contract with MGM. . . .
Her hobby was inventing . . . and as war broke out in Europe, she sought to invent something that would help defeat the Nazis. Together with [the composer George] Antheil, the twenty-six-year-old Lamarr developed plans for a radio-controlled torpedo that by switching from one frequency to another, could elude enemy detection and jamming. (The idea for frequency-hopping came in part from Antheil’s attempt to synchronize player pianos; the knowledge of weaponry was Lamarrr’s.) . . .
Their plan for a guided torpedo reached the U.S. Navy [in 1941] and was rejected as too heavy—although the Patent Office did issue two patents on the Antheil-Lamarr “secret communication system.” The Navy acquired the patents and did nothing until, once expired around 1960, the plans became the basis for the similar “spread-spectrum” technology that would ultimately lead to wi-fi, surveillance drones, satellite communications, GPS, and many cordless phones.