Hedy wasn’t stupid. She had achieved a certain notoriety for her full frontal nudity and convincing orgasm in the film “Ecstacy”, but she was also mathematically gifted and acquainted with the intricacies of modern weaponry thanks to her first marriage to an Austrian munitions manufacturer.
George Antheil made his living as an avant-garde composer of orchestral music and opera. He lived in Paris during the ’20s and counted Ernest Hemingway and Igor Stravinsky among his friends. Antheil would often lay a pistol on the piano as a warning to his audience to keep quiet. George was also more than a pianist with eccentric skills and provocative compositions. He penned an advice column to the lovelorn, wrote for Esquire magazine, and even published a book entitled “Every Man His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Endocrinology”.
Hedy Lamarr was very interested in glandular matters. She approached Antheil at a Hollywood dinner party hoping to talk about the possibility of increasing the size of her breasts. However, in 1942 there was a war going on, and there were other topics to talk about.
The Germans were blocking and intercepting Allied radio communications and things weren’t going well. Hedy and George talked together about how they might help the war effort. They had each hung out in enough beer halls to be familiar with the inner workings of a player piano. What if radio frequencies could hop all over the spectrum, the way music jumped all up and down the 88 ivory keys when the piano roll turned? Messages would be difficult to jam or intercept, but if you knew the code, could easily be put back together.
Hedy and George thought they were onto something, so they secured a patent, and pitched it to the Navy brass.
Antheil later recognized that comparing the invention to the mechanism of a player piano in front of a bunch of naval officers had probably been a mistake. “‘My god,’ I can see them saying, ‘we shall put a player piano in a torpedo.’”
Lamarr and Antheil dropped the idea and went back to making movies and music.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s that engineers at Sylvania rediscovered their patent and started using it in their research and development. Today we use it every day: Frequency-hopping spread-spectrum technology is a key element in wireless and cellphone communications.