Incredibly hot chick invents the mobile phone

It is almost certainly unfair to describe Hedy Lamarr merely as an “incredibly hot chick”. She certainly was that, but she was also a supertalented actress of 40s flicks like Samson and Delilah. And in case that wasn’t impressive enough, she also invented a central technology behind the mobile phone.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. In the 30s, Lamarr was in an unfortunate marriage to a control-freak Austrian munitions manufacturer. While sitting in on his business meetings, she learned that one of the German army’s main problems was dealing with radio-signal jamming. Lamarr escaped the marriage — by drugging the maid and climbing out a window (!!) — and came to America. She later had an epiphany, as a story in The New York Times today explains:

Lamarr’s insight was to realize that continuously and randomly changing the radio frequencies would defy jamming. In early 1940, she and the composer George Antheil devised a system for airplanes to direct torpedoes toward their targets. Inspired by player pianos, Antheil conceived of a pair of paper rolls, one in the airplane, one in the torpedo, to specify the sequence of changing frequencies. “It’s the damnedest Rube Goldberg you ever saw,” said David Hughes, a retired colonel and a communications expert who will be the scientific consultant to Ms. Somerfeld. “But the seminal idea was there.”

Antheil and Lamarr patented their scheme, which they called “frequency hopping,” and donated it to the government. The Navy, doubting that the paper-roll devices could be built, declined to try to pursue it but nonetheless classified the idea …

An article in The New York Times on Oct. 1, 1941, briefly noted Lamarr’s invention, saying, “So vital is her discovery to national defense that government officials will not allow publication of its details.”

Hot damn. Gretchen Somerfield, a Los Angeles writer, has produced a screenplay about Lamarr, and I hope like hell it gets turned into a movie! “Had she been born in another era,” Somerville told the Times, “she could have really gone for it and lived up to her potential.” Seriously.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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