Spreading The Word About The ‘Mother Of Wi-Fi’

22:44 minutes

Credit: [Public Domain] via Wikicommons
Called “the most beautiful woman in the world,” actor Hedy Lamarr was renowned for her looks. But she had a brilliant, inventive mind that she rarely got credit for until very close to the end of her life. Working with composer George Antheil, she patented the frequency-hopping, or spread-spectrum technology that now powers wireless internet, cell phones, and GPS. While Hedy didn’t receive acknowledgement for the invention until 1997, her contribution is getting more attention these days, like in the documentary “Bombshell,” which showed at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Actress Diane Kruger, who narrated “Bombshell” and who’s working on turning the story into a television miniseries, talks to Ira about the inspiration she hopes Lamarr can offer young girls.

And Richard Rhodes, who chronicled Lamarr’s biography in his 2011 book, “Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” joins Kruger to tell the tale of the “mother of Wi-Fi.”

[Behind the scenes with inventor—and actor—Hedy Lamarr.]

Segment Guests

Richard Rhodes

Richard Rhodes is a journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction (1988). He’s the author of Hedy’s Folly: The Life And Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr (Doubleday, 2011).

Diane Kruger

Diane Kruger is an actress, including roles in ‘Bombshell’ and ‘The Hedy Project.’ She’s based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

I first learned of the inventive talents of Hedy Lamarr from the story, cover story in the spring 1997 issue of American Heritage magazine Invention & Technology. There she was on the cover, her glamorous Hollywood face pictured on top of a patent with her name on it. A patent that was kept hidden by the Pentagon since the 1940s.

Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr was more than meets the eye. The most beautiful woman in Hollywood and also the mother of Wi-Fi. That’s right, she invented in her free time, from instant cola to a device to hold your used tissues. Her most passionate invention, a patent held for a secret communication system that now underlies most of our wireless technology. Today we call it frequency hopping.

Hedy’s story is largely unknown to the public, partly because she didn’t talk about it much herself. Here’s her in an interview in 1969 on the Merv Griffin Show, just hinting about it.

MERV GRIFFIN: Tell me something that I didn’t know about you.

HEDY LAMARR: I want to be as simple– I am, I’m a very simple, complicated person.

IRA FLATOW: She finally received professional acknowledgement by fellow inventors just three years before her death. For decades, screenwriters and producers have been trying to tell Hedy’s story. Hollywood has never been interested.

But now popular culture has finally caught up with the real Hedy. A new documentary, Bombshell, aired at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this spring, and it will run on PBS next year. And a television miniseries is also in the works that will dig down further into her inventive side.

Today we’re going to revisit the brilliance of Hedy Lamarr and why telling her story is so important and why we’re telling it now. Let me introduce my guest Diane Kruger, actress, narrator in the recent documentary Bombshell, and she will portray Hedy in a forthcoming TV series about Hedy Lamarr. Welcome to Science Friday. Diane?



DIANE KRUGER: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you.

Richard Rhodes, author of Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. That’s the book he wrote. He’s joining us from Moon Bay, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

RICHARD RHODES: Thank you. Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask you, Richard, as Hedy said herself in 1969, she was very simple complicated person.

RICHARD RHODES: She was complicated. I don’t know about simple. But someone who is going home at night instead of going to Hollywood parties and sitting at a drafting table with a bunch of engineering textbooks behind her, coming up with inventions, that’s not a simple person.

IRA FLATOW: Diane, you’re someone who hadn’t heard of Hedy’s story until Richard’s book came out, and now you’re attached to these two projects about her. What makes her so compelling to you?

DIANE KRUGER: I was just fascinated with her story, you know. What attracted me most to her was that she already had this incredible life. Coming over to the US from Austria, escaping the war, convincing Louis B. Mayer on a boat to the US to hire her as an actress. And then in her spare time, as a non trained engineer coming up with frequency hopping, I just found myself completely enthralled by her story.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get into the story a little bit. Let me begin with you, Richard. Of course, as I say, a lot of people don’t know she’s the mother of Wi-Fi, the big frequency hopping patent. What got her working on all of that? Give us a little thumbnail sketch of that.

RICHARD RHODES: Hedy grew up in Vienna with a kind of debutante’s education But her father was a bank director who was interested in science and technology, and often walked her around Vienna pointing out how things work. So she had a kind of background that she associated with a much beloved father.

Then she married at 19, as a movie star in Vienna– in Hollywood, sorry. In Austria she married the second richest man in Austria, who was an arms merchant but also had an engineering firm that helped German and Italian military people solve technical problems. So once again, as a kind of arm piece at dinner, when all of these generals and admirals were coming around, she listened and absorbed and learned.

When she then got to Hollywood in the 1930s and began inventing on her own, she added to her skills. But then in the beginning– that interim period between the time when the Second World War began in Europe and the time the United States joined that war, she followed the war with great concern. She was Austrian, so technically an enemy alien. Her country was attacking British shipping in particular, and torpedoed ships loaded with children who were being moved from England to Canada to escape the German bombing of London and of the country. That horrified her. And it was then that she began thinking how she might be of help.

IRA FLATOW: Diane Kruger, she also had a very daring life. As Richard said, she escaped her first husband and then she had to establish herself in Hollywood. Do you think– do most people in Hollywood, or– do they know about her? Or did they know that of her when she was alive?

DIANE KRUGER: I don’t know. I only heard about her because of the book. And I think that’s part of what makes me really want to tell her story because it’s an extraordinary one, and it is really rare to get to Hollywood and do everything that she did. And then her story of not being recognized for what she came up with, and really her family’s journey, to make sure that she finally will get the recognition that she deserves. It’s a fascinating story to tell and I think it’s a great story for young girls to listen to.

RICHARD RHODES: Let me just add that there was an exodus from Germany and Austria with the coming of Hitler, of all sorts of artists, including actors with Jewish backgrounds. And Hedy’s family were assimilated Jews. She was raised actually in the Catholic education. But Hitler was aware that she was Jewish, and she had to get out.

So they moved to America and England and other places, and it was a very difficult transition. Very few people managed it. She was one of the few who succeeded in her new world, changing language, changing culture, having to find another way to live. So it shouldn’t be surprising, I think, that there was a great stress and strain pushing people to achievement in their new lives.

IRA FLATOW: And she had this inventive side to her that a lot of people didn’t know about. Did she go searching for equally minded folks in Hollywood who might be able to share their inventive side and work together?

RICHARD RHODES: You know, there was always in Hollywood in those days another world besides the one we know of, of talented people with artistic gifts. She used to play chess with Man Ray, the American photographer who was part of the whole surrealist movement in Paris in the ’20s. So her idea of a good time was a quiet dinner party. She would go to dinner with people like Mitzi Gaynor and her gay husband Adrian. And that was actually where she met an avant garde composer named George Antheil, who helped her with her invention of frequency hopping when it came to that point.

IRA FLATOW: He’s the one who came up with the idea of using the piano roll, which he had used in his music, to change, to hop the frequencies around like the dots on, like the slits and dots on the piano roll.

RICHARD RHODES: Exactly. They needed a way to change the frequencies automatically, and they worked out a way to have the scroll on the plane, like a miniature piano roll, and an equally timed scroll on a torpedo, which would flip the frequency from one point to another, with little holes in the scroll just like the ones on a piano roll. It was a very clever use of the existing technology, because digital technologies had not yet, of course, come along.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255 if you’d like to talk about Hedy Lamarr.

And she didn’t give up her inventive capacities or her inventive desires for a long time. I mean, in Bombshell you talk about Howard Hughes fixing her up with her own little invention center, a little laboratory.

RICHARD RHODES: Yes, that’s right. Hughes loaned her a couple of chemists. She was working on a tablet that could be dropped into a canteen or a glass of water that would fizz up and make a cola drink. She thought that would help the soldiers in their travels around Europe during the war. But of course, she didn’t know any chemistry, so he loaned her a couple of chemists. Unfortunately, she said that it didn’t work. It was one of her few inventions that didn’t work, because different water qualities affected the fizziness.

IRA FLATOW: Diane, you mentioned something earlier about, you think this will be very helpful toward stimulating young women, girls, to see themselves differently. Last year we saw the massive success of Hidden Figures, another story about brilliant women in science. Is there something in the air now in Hollywood that is bringing these stories about women scientists or women interested in science out to the public?

DIANE KRUGER: Yeah, I mean I don’t know if it’s just in Hollywood, but just judging for myself, I went to school and was never encouraged to really pay attention in physics or chemistry. And I love that she had a curious mind, that she grew up with a father who encouraged her to be curious and explained to her how things work. I just took away such a positive message from her story.

And as a girl, I feel like this is the moment where we should teach our daughters that they can do anything they want. And those typically male jobs should not– you know, that’s not the law. So be curious, and if you’re curious in this, you should have examples to look up to.

RICHARD RHODES: We should mention that the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, which encourages communications on science and technology, has been behind– was behind the film Hidden Figures, supported the development of that film, and has supported the development of my book, first of all, and now of the documentary that you were discussing. They have been greatly concerned to deal with this.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’ve been following this myself. Sloan is a funder of Science Friday and we have relations with them. Doron Weber over there and I have been talking about this for 15 years.


IRA FLATOW: This movie has gone through all kinds of hoops, has it not?

RICHARD RHODES: Always has. It’s as complicated as a good invention.

IRA FLATOW: Why is that?

RICHARD RHODES: I don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: Why is it so hard to get–

DIANE KRUGER: I think it’s–

IRA FLATOW: Yes, Diane?

DIANE KRUGER: Well let me, from my experience, because I’m trying to produce the mini series about her, it’s very difficult to explain an invention to people that want to be entertained, I guess. And Hidden Figure was, I think one of the first really great films that was both, in my opinion. And so all of a sudden there’s this appetite in Hollywood of making stories that seemed impossible to crack, because clearly there’s a hunger for it there.

But then for Hedy in particular, what’s been difficult is that her story is so big and it spans five decades. You want to tell all of it because she was– yes, she was an inventor, but she was also a brilliant woman and a great actress. And so you need the time to tell her story. And so it’s kind of a hard nut to crack.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Our number, 844-724-8255. Talking with Diane Kruger and Richard Rhodes about the lifetime of Hedy Lamarr.

One of the very poignant scenes during the film in Bombshell, depicts Hedy as having a difficult relationship with her own looks. She said they were a curse, she was so good looking. She also had so much plastic surgery when she grew older. Do you think not being valued for her mind affected her value of herself?

RICHARD RHODES: You know, I think we should be clear that, again, moving from one world to another, taking those great risks, she was made wealthy and famous by her looks. But it was not her looks that she valued. She valued her mind. She once said, “I can tell you how to be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” And that was the kind of conflict she had, because on the one hand, she was made rich and powerful by her looks, but on the other hand, the other part of herself was never recognized until late in her life.

IRA FLATOW: Diane, do you have a comment to make about that?

DIANE KRUGER: Yeah. I think Richard is right, and then I think as she grew older, I think she was very bitter. You know, Hollywood turned her back on her because now she wasn’t young and beautiful anymore, and she was trying to keep that facade up but clearly couldn’t. And nobody ever valued her for her mind, so she became a recluse from her own family.

It’s a sad story, and at the same time I think it’s a wonderful story that she was alive when she was finally recognized for it. But she never, for example, made any money with it. They let the patent expired before, I think it’s 20 years or 25 years. They never did anything about it, and they knew that she had it, but she could never prove it until it was too late.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to a quick phone call to Noel in Oakland. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

NOEL: Hey, Ira. I’m calling because my great uncle was an old-timey movie producer and director at MGM for many, many years. And I was looking through some books that I have of all the stills, and he directed a big splashy movie with Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner and Judy Garland. They were kind of the three big stars. I think it was called Ziegfeld Girl.

And I was looking at the three women, and I was thinking about how, you know, for Judy and for what’s-her-face, the blond, things turned out so bad because of all of the negatives that came with that role as a movie star. It’s drugs and alcohol and all that. And I guess I thought Hedy’s life turned out differently. But then I just heard what Diane said, and maybe it didn’t, other than she became reclusive. But I thought maybe that kind of gave her some protection from the downfalls of that Hollywood life.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. She had her–

NOEL: That was all.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Thanks. So she had science as her buffer, is what I guess the caller is saying. Something else to turn to in Hollywood.

We’re going to take a break. We have a lot more to talk about Hedy Lamarr with Diane Kruger, actress in Bombshell, a forthcoming TV series on Hedy’s inventive side, and Richard Rhodes, author of Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr. That was out in 2011 from Knopf.

And our number, 844-724-8255. Stay with us. You can also tweet us @SciFri. We’ll be back right after this break.

I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday. We’re talking with Diane Kruger, an actress and producer and voice in Bombshell, the forthcoming TV series on PBS on Hedy Lamarr and her inventive side. Richard Rhodes, author of Hedy’s Folly. Our number, 844-724-8255.

Quick correction. I want to ask if this is your misspeaking, Richard. We’ve gotten a lot of tweets coming in that you meant to say Janet Gaynor, not Mitzi Gaynor.

RICHARD RHODES: Ah. Good. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Hey, that’s my ballpark, misnaming people. I understand how that works. Diane, the upcoming series that you’re working on, how many parts do you see and how difficult are you going to find it to get all the stuff into a series?

DIANE KRUGER: I’m thinking we’re probably going to aim for five to six episodes. We want to start the story when she is 16, because I think her relationship with her dad is very, very important and something that I really cherish. And then, you know, we’ll see. We’re still in developing stages. But I can see it being a six times one hour.

IRA FLATOW: And you’re going to play the lead role in this.

DIANE KRUGER: I’d like to. Yeah, I’d like to. I mean, you know, I am originally from Germany, so I’m always fascinated by people from my country, even though she’s from Austria. But it’s close enough. I don’t know. I just, I really am fascinated with her.

IRA FLATOW: I noticed that executive producer of Bombshell is Susan Sarandon, another famous Hollywood actress. What was her interest in this? And what brought her on? Do you have any idea, Diane?

DIANE KRUGER: Probably the same reasons as for me. I think, you know, we don’t come across female stories enough. And hers is a really good one, and her story deserves to be heard and told. And I’m assuming she had a personal interest about her. I don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: I found it interesting in watching Bombshell that Mel Brooks seemed to have a thing for her. Richard?

RICHARD RHODES: You know, the discovery late in her life that she was the inventor of this groundbreaking and fundamental technology of frequency hopping, or as it came to be called later, spread spectrum, which is now used in Bluetooth systems and communications with our GPS system, some cell phone systems, it’s all over the place today. The group of men in the world of engineering who first discovered that the name on the patent– which was Hedwig Markey, was actually Hedy Lamarr, that happened to be her married name when she signed the patent– were all mean of about the same age. They were guys who had fallen in love with her when they were teenage boys watching her movies. So they had kind of a built-in radar for being drawn to this whole curious story of their favorite Hollywood actress, the sexy Hedy Lamarr, being the inventor of this groundbreaking and fundamental technology that they were just beginning to work with as they moved into wireless digital, which is where it finds its place today.

IRA FLATOW: So Mel Brooks’s famous line Hedley in Blazing Saddles–

RICHARD RHODES: Which unfortunately is what, about all that most people know about Hedy Lamarr who are younger than let’s say 50 years of age.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. What do you take away– just a couple of minutes left here– Diane, what do you take away from– what’s the message we should all take away from this whole experience?

DIANE KRUGER: I mean, for me it is really about encouraging young people, and especially young women, to go into fields that are traditionally male oriented, and to not judge a book by its covers. I also think that the father daughter relationship is something that I find myself, as a girl, really interested in. And, you know, anything is possible if you have a curious mind and you think outside the box. The world is your oyster, and I love that message.

IRA FLATOW: Richard, do you have any final thoughts?

RICHARD RHODES: Well certainly people should be aware that the world is wide open to ideas from– they don’t have to have advanced degrees necessarily. They don’t even have to be working in the same field. Hedy just looked at the world with the eye of someone who wondered how she could make things a little better. And in that tradition came up with something really profound.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.


IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Have a great weekend. Diane Kruger, actress and narrator in the documentary Bombshell, that will be on PBS I think next year. And Richard Rhodes, author of Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. If you want to know about Hedy Lamarr, you should read that book. It’s everything you’ll know.

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