|Actress, inventor Hedy Lamarr dead at 86|
(01/20/2000 5:48 PM EST)
ORLANDO, Fla. — Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr, who was found dead at her home on Wednesday (Jan. 19), left a legacy of striking screen appearances and of an electronics invention that even now is changing the face of communications.
Best known as a 1940s glamour girl, the Viennese-born Lamarr, who was 86, also co-invented a spread-spectrum technique for secure communications. As legend has it, she and avant-garde composer George Antheil developed the idea while improvising duets on the piano, after they realized they were reacting to one another's key changes.
As Lamarr would later tell the story, she and Antheil sketched the idea together as a means to prevent jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes, a topic she'd gleaned through her first husband, a munitions dealer. The idea was to have the radio communication change frequencies continually, with receivers on both ends making the changes in sync.
Antheil and Lamarr received a U.S. patent in 1942, but because the scheme's synchronization relied on cumbersome paper tape similar to piano rolls, the military declined to use the invention.
But decades later — after the patent had expired — the rise of computer chips made synchronized spectrum spreading easy and affordable. The military did eventually adopt the concept, and the technology has gained commonplace use in wireless and satellite communications. But the pair never made any money off their invention. In 1997, they received a "Pioneer" award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Lamarr was better known to the world as a screen actress, however. Born in 1913 as Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler, she came to Hollywood in 1937, having debuted at age 19 in the then-shocking Czech film, Ecstasy.
Lamarr's work in technology was at odds not just with her screen persona, but with her era, when women were discouraged from scientific careers.
"There's still that sort of amazement when you actually think about the fact that there were women inventors," said Chips Klein, co-director of the nonprofit Women Inventors Project (Thornhill, Ontario). "When you think of an inventor, you think of the negative male stereotype of the crazy mad scientist. Who would have thunk, in those days, that this gorgeous woman had a brain?"
Lamarr's personal life was less than glamorous, including six divorces and, later in her life, two well-publicized shoplifting arrests. Lamarr finished her years alone in a Florida suburb.
Today marks 10 years ago that Hedy Lamarr passed away. She was 86 years old. Rest in Peace Hedy, May you have found the peace, you most definitely deserved.
November 9th 1913 - January 19th 2000