Hedy Lamarr’s on the Line!

Hedy Lamarr fled Nazi-occupied Austria and invented cell phone technology in the 1940s?? Sort of, yes!

As with many amazing things I discover, I heard this story on PRX Remix and couldn’t stop thinking about it all night.

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr Publicity Photo

The story in short: Thought to be the most beautiful woman in the world, acclaimed Hollywood actress and brilliant inventor Lamarr was first the wife of Fritz Mandl, an arms manufacturer and socialite in Vienna. Mandl lived a life of greed, wheeling and dealing weapons and entertaining bigwigs like Mussolini and Hitler despite his Jewish heritage.

Lamarr escaped from this life, eventually making it to California, where she began to show clear patriotism, enraged by Nazi violence against innocent children and perhaps spurred by a desire to make up for her ex-husband’s disregard for humanity. Consumed by the idea of new communication methods between U.S. naval ships and their torpedoes, she devised a method of frequency switching that was undetectable by enemy ships.

When she finally partnered with composer George Antheil (who used a similar technology to synch 9 player pianos for live performance), Lamarr was able to put her thoughts into action. Together, they patented frequency-switching, a technology that was WAY ahead of its time.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that modern military equipment could harness this technology, and the U.S. Military made good use of it. Was this the culmination of Hedy Lamarr’s brainchild? You didn’t forget about the cell phone, did you?

CDMA Diagram

The technology described in the patent filed by Lamarr and Antheil in the 1940s forms the basis of CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), the technology on which modern day cell phones were developed. Sure, some will tell you it was the Russians who first harnessed this phenomenon… but me? I’m proud of the heart and accomplishments of my Jewish American sister.


Published by Sara Lesley Arnold

Librarian and writer

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