Legal Briefs:
Hedy Lamarr and National Security

The Department of Defense recently asked citizens to volunteer ideas on how to fight terrorism. Snickers have been heard from various sectors, including the New York Times, which commented that now "every Tom, Dick and Goofball" will become national security consultants. Apparently, the New York Times doesn't remember Hedy Lamarr.

Who was Hedy Lamarr? She was a famous Hollywood movie star of the 30's 40's and 50's, starring in many movies with leading men such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Victor Mature. But Hedy was famous even before she became a Hollywood star by allowing herself to be filmed nude in a swimming scene in a 1933 Czech film.

Hedy came to Hollywood in 1937 and began a more sedate movie career. However, Hedy was not your typical starlet. She was a fervent anti-Nazi, having seen first-hand what was going on in Europe, and committed herself to doing everything she could to defeat fascism. Hedy had inside information on the German munitions industry, and she wanted to turn that information against the Nazis. Before arriving in the U.S., Hedy had been married to an Austrian industrialist, Fritz Mandl, whose clients included the Germans. Hedy attended meetings and parties with her husband and, like most beautiful women, was considered invisible by the arrogant males who surrounded her. They talked as if she didn't exist. But Hedy had ears. And a brain.

When she moved to the States, she went to a party at Janet Gaynor's house one night and became involved in a conversation with a composer named George Antheil who wrote music for player pianos. Hedy told him about a conversation she had listened to in which German engineers discussed trying to design a radio system for guided torpedoes that could not be jammed by an enemy. Lamarr thought that the radio signals guiding the torpedo could be made safe from jamming if the signals could "hop" from frequency to frequency in step with a receiver in the torpedo. Antheil suggested using a paper tape, like the paper roll that tells a player piano what notes to play. The two of them applied for a patent on this process and were granted one in August 1942. Unfortunately, the Navy couldn't figure out how to make the system work. Twenty years later, however, when primitive computers came along, the system was finally incorporated into torpedoes used by the Navy, and then integrated into virtually every communication system used during the Cold War.

The patent expired in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the government allowed Hedy's idea to be used in commercial applications, and thus, your cell phone, when it skips from antenna to antenna to keep you talking, owes its success to an idea a movie star had in 1941. So does GPS. And the Internet. Maybe the Department of Defense is on to something. Maybe someone there remembered Hedy Lamarr.

The author is a local attorney specializing in Intellectual Property law and can be reached at


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