The Hacker Mind Podcast: A Hacker From Hollywood

Robert Vamosi
January 5, 2022
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This is the story of a film star who connected the simple concept behind a player piano to complex communication technology in use in our devices today.

Hedy Lamarr is perhaps best known for the dozen or so motion pictures she made -- and as the most beautiful woman in the world -- but did you know that she also co-patented the frequency hopping spread spectrum technology that is the foundation for cellular, Wi-Fi, and even Bluetooth communications?

Vamosi: What if I were to tell you, a lot of modern technology can be traced back to simple inventions of the late 19th century? I suppose that wouldn't be too surprising. A lot of modern communications, for example, have their origins in the 19th century, such as the telegraph, which required wires to be strung around the world. So that basic electrical signals either on or off could be sent. This fundamental infrastructure of wires became useful later when voice was enabled. We already had the knowledge on how to string cable everywhere, and now we can string cable into people's homes. What if I was thinking about wireless technology that we use today? That something relatively simple, first produced in the 19th century, a player piano could directly lead to something very complex that we use every day in our mobile devices? Talking about Bluetooth and Wi-Fi? That's a bit of a stretch perhaps. What's even more of a stretch is that this technological advancement came from a woman once described by a Hollywood film producer, as the most beautiful woman in the world. This then is a story about that woman a hacker from of all places, Hollywood.


Welcome to The Hacker Mind, an original podcast from ForAllSecure. It's about challenging our expectations about the people who hack for a living. I'm Robert Vamosi, and in this episode, I'm going to be talking about Hedy Lamarr. An Austrian American immigrant who grew up inventing things and even dated Howard Hughes, and had the use of his facilities and scientists but who is perhaps better known for the dozen or so motion pictures she started. She was the famed beauty that inspired female characters such as Batman's Catwoman, and Walt Disney's Snow White. With an estimated IQ of around 160, the actress was also responsible for developing the underlying technology that is present today in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Yeah, this is one fascinating woman this is also our hacker from Hollywood.


Hedy Lamarr, originally known as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, was born in 1914 in Austria, her father was from what is now Ukraine and her mother was a pianist from Hungary. At the age of 12, he entered and won a beauty contest in Vienna. So from an early age, she was seen as someone who was beautiful, often undercutting her innate intelligence

Lamarr: People have the idea that I’m sort of a stupid thing. I never knew I looked good to begin with because my mother wanted a boy, named Gil (george). So, unfortunately, I didn’t become that and she wasn’t too thrilled about that. 

Vamosi: More formative was the time she spent with her father. He would often take Hedy out on long walks in Vienna, explaining how various forms of turn of the century 20th century technologies function. This battle between brains and beauty, more or less defined her life, and time and time again, beauty continued to win out, at least in the short term. Hedy began her acting career at the age of 16 for an Austrian film guild.

She was also best known at the time for her lead in a controversial Austrian film known as Ecstasy, in which the 18 year old Hedy appeared nude, having been fooled by the producer into thinking the camera was too far away for her to be seen. The film won some artistic praise, but it was also banned in several countries, including Germany. 

That same year, Hedy married Frederick Mandal, who was a successful arms dealer for the Italian dictator Mussolini among others. It was said she would often sit in on his business meetings, while the others in the meetings would think she had no idea what they were talking about. She listened intently and this knowledge would become important later on. 

About four years later, when Nazi Germany took over Austria, Lamarr left Mondo, literally left him. The story goes that she was wearing all her jewelry one night when she went to dinner with her husband and never returned having slipped out. Her son Anthony Lodar later said,

Lodar:  One evening, Hedy drugged the maid, literally, with sleeping pills. The maid went to sleep. Hedy escaped out the window. Made her way to Paris. Then over to London. 

Vamosi: She would have been 23 at the time. In 1937 Lamar arrived in England where she had a chance encounter with Louis B. Mayer, the second M in MGM. Mayer thought she could become another Greta Garbo or Marline Dietrich. She literally turned down his initial offer of $125 a week. Nonetheless, she did book herself on the same ocean liner as Mayer.

Lodar: She came to the United States on the Normandy

Vamosi: While crossing the Atlantic, Lamarr managed to convince Mayer to give her a $500 a week contract instead. Mayer then persuaded her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr, if only to distance herself from the Ecstasy reputation. It also offered her a clean start in Hollywood. In 1938, Mayer began promoting Lamarr as the world's most beautiful woman. And that year she started the film Algiers with Charles Boyer

So at 24 years old, she'd fled her home country and landed in Hollywood, California. Her life was just getting started. And the people she met were just getting exciting.


Vamosi: It was in about that same timeframe but 1938 or so that she met Howard Hughes. This wasn't too surprising. He was known among the Hollywood producers at that time. Hughes had financed a lot of movies in Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s, and was now using some of his wealth to fund various research projects. Lamarr was different from other Hollywood stars, and Hughes and Lamarr bonded over their love of invention. While they were romantically together, Hughes gave Lamarr complete access to his team of scientists. He also gave her a small set of equipment to use in a movie trailer while on the set with allowing her to work on her inventions in between maybe takes us would also take her to his airplane factories where he would show her how the planes were being built. He told her he really wanted to create faster planes so that he could sell them to the US military.

Lamarr: I thought the airplane was too slow. I decided that's not right. It shouldn't be square, the wing so I bought a book of fish and a book of birds and then used the fastest bird and connected it with the fastest fish, and I drew it together and showed it to Howard Hughes. He said, “You are a genius.”  

Vamosi: Once again, there was the problem. Lamarr was often seen as only glamorous, yet she was more interested in using her brain than capitalizing on her body. She said famously, any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand there and look stupid. But Lamarr clearly wasn't stupid. Improving things comes naturally to me. She said later in life. As proof, Lamarr had created an upgraded version of a traditional traffic stop like

Narrator:  This is the amazing thing about Hedy Lamarr. She left school when she was 15 years old to become an actress. She loves chemistry, we know that.

Lodar:  She invented during that period a tablet that would fizz up and make good cola.

Lamarr:  I had two chemists, Howard Hughes gave me to do that. You know during the war,  nobody had Coca Cola and I wanted to compress it into a cube so that servicemen and factory people, so that all they had to have was water and put it in.

Vamosi: That, however, would pale in what Lamarr would do next.


Vamosi:  It was during a small dinner party in 1940 at the home of actress Janet Gaynor and her husband that Lamarr met George Antheil, who at the time was best known for writing film scores, and experimental music. Everyone at the dinner, however, was talking about the upcoming war with the Germans in September 1940 A passenger liner The SSS binaries, set sail for Canada with 100 British children on board. With the allied ships escorting the Banaras departed a German submarine torpedoed and of the 406 passengers and crew 100 were children and of those only 19 survived. Antheil said later head he did not feel comfortable sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money. When things were in such a state. Crowded radio frequencies can have life and death consequences. During World War Two, the US's British-made radio-guided torpedoes were often subject to frequency jamming by the Germans, having once been married to Mendel. Lamarr already had knowledge of munitions and various weaponry. So Lamarr and Antheil began tinkering with ideas.

Lodar: My mother came up with the idea of all these frequencies should be changing all the time in sync with each other. But she didn't know how to make that happen. 

Vamosi: Antheil did.  In the 1920s. He worked with player pianos, also known as pianos. These were musical devices from the late 19th century that use pneumonic or electromagnetic mechanisms to operate the piano action. This was done with program music recorded on either perforated paper or in rare instances, metallic roles, sales of player pianos had peaked in 1924, and then declined as the improvements in phonograph recordings continued. Mind you, World War Two was in 1940 in 1924, and hills grand experiment was known as ballet poor Mechanik de percussion.


This was written for 16 synchronized player pianos, accompanied by two grand pianos, as well as three xylophones, four brass drums, a gong, three airplane propellers, seven electric bells, and of course a siren. Well, he wasn't very successful. And part of it was keeping the 16 player pianos in sync. So he restored it with fewer player pianos and re-premiered it two years later in Paris. So, Anthiel had experience with making machines talk to each other in sync or at least trying to do so. What Lamarr wanted was to sync the signals between the transmitter and the receiver together. The analogy was the script, the paper punchouts that would tell the player piano which keys to strike and how frequently there would be two scripts then one for the sender and one for the receiver. The boat and the torpedo would then change frequencies in sync. Any attempt at jamming those communications would be short-lived, as the frequency would change so often and so rapidly. By the end of 1940, the two inventors sent their rudimentary sketches to the National Inventors Council, the Clearinghouse for Military and defense invention submitted by civilians, the council encouraged them to continue their work. So they started with 88 frequency changes. Why 88 Well, there are 88 keys on a piano. 

A short time later, they completed their design and presented it to the US Patent Office. The patent clearly shows a paper tape in one of the drawings and states “we contemplate employing records of the type used for many years in player pianos.” The patent also describes a clockwork mechanism that can be used to ensure that the transmitter and the receiver tapes started at the exact same moment. Any deviation from a simultaneous start would have prevented that synchronization. In addition to the tape driven, frequency hopping, the patent outlines a method for sending false signals that further enhance the anti-jamming properties. 

By 1943, Lamarr and Antheil received their patent for their work Frequency Hopping Spread spectrum. They immediately submitted it to the US Navy, which rejected it. The US government immediately classified the technology; however, the Navy thought the mechanism proposed was too bulky to be incorporated on the average torpedo. Anthiel thought the people who vetted their invention, quote, read no further than the words player piano oh my god I can see them saying we can't have a player piano on a torpedo. Perhaps the player piano analogy had gone too far. The war ended without this new technology being used, and it was not until 1957 that further development on the spread spectrum occurred.

Lodar: It was first implemented on US Navy ships in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 20 years after the concept was born.

Vamosi: And it wasn't until the 1970s that the Frequency Hopping Spread spectrum was declassified by the US government. That's when commercial development began.


Vamosi: Frequency Hopping Spread spectrum has been used in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and even cellular communications as a means of avoiding interference and also preventing eavesdropping. The concept is pretty simple. The available frequency band is divided into smaller sub-bands, signals frequently change or hop their carrier frequencies in a predetermined order. Interference at a specific frequency will only affect the signal during a very short interval in 2g and 3g cellular communications. CDMA stands for Code Division Multiple Access and it uses Frequency Hopping Spread spectrum although the global standard at the time Global System for Mobile, or GSM did not. Subsequent 4g and 5g technologies don't use frequency hopping. They've advanced other methods to avoid interference. The majority of early Wi-Fi developments used Frequency Hopping Spread spectrum technology, the original IEEE 802 dot 11 standard data that each hop must consist of frequencies one megahertz wide because the spectrum specified the maximum bandwidth of 79 megahertz the maximum number of hops possible would be set to 79. These individual hops are then arranged in a predefined sequence. Frequency Hopping Spread spectrum was one of the original technologies defined for RF communications using 2.4 gigahertz is m band for legacy Wi-Fi radios specifically Frequency Hopping Spread spectrum transmits data by using a specified frequency set for a period of time known as dwell time. When the dwell time expires, the system changes to another frequency and begins to transmit on that frequency for the duration of its dwell time. Each time the dwell time is reached, the system changes to another frequency and continues to transmit. A majority of these Wi-Fi radios were manufactured between 1997 and 1999. This then evolved into direct sequence spread spectrum instead of a Frequency Hopping Spread spectrum where the carrier does not drop or change frequency and remains centered on one channel that is 22 megahertz wide. Today we no longer use frequency hopping for Wi-Fi. We have moved on to other RF technologies such as orthogonal frequency division multiple access. However, we use frequency hopping still for Bluetooth devices and other radio transmitters. Bluetooth mitigates the risk of collisions through its use of spread spectrum technologies. When two devices are connected this involves a specific technique known as adaptive frequency hopping at each connection point a pair of connected devices have the opportunity to use their radios to exchange packets at precisely timed intervals. But in addition to this at the start of each connection, frequency hopping occurs, with a radio channel being deterministically selected from a set of available channels using the channel selector algorithm. That's easy to say.


Vamosi:  During World War Two, Lamarr insisted that she wanted to join the National Inventors Council. She was reportedly told by councilmember Charles Kettering and others that she would be better in helping the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds.

Narrator:  America's war bond campaign is in full swing, and it's not surprising to find that head LMI is a best seller. When this picture was taken at Newark, New Jersey. She told us that her record was three and a half million dollars worth to date that surely entitles them to give the Churchill sign.

Vamosi: Lamarr participated in a war bond selling campaign with a sailor named Eddie Rhodes. The deal was this roads would be in the crowd at each Lamarr's parents and she would call him up on stage. She would then flirt with him before asking the audience if she should give him a kiss. The crowd would say yes, to which Hedy would then reply. She would if enough people only bought war bonds. After the bonds were purchased, she then would kiss roads and he would head back into the audience. Then they would head off to the next city. While working with an Ohio Lamarr said she was thinking of quitting MGM and going to Washington to offer her services in the newly established inventors Council. In 1945 Lamarr did leave MGM, but she didn't go to Washington. Instead, she became a Hollywood movie producer on her own. And in 1946 She had a partner made the thriller The Strange Woman.

That film went over budget and made only a minor profit. She then produced and starred in a Dishonored Lady, another thriller. It also went over budget, but it was also a commercial success. And in 1948 She started in a comedy with Robert Cummings called Let's Live a lLttle 

In 1949 Lamarr returned to major filmmaking. She enjoyed her biggest commercial success and Cecil B deMill’s Samson and Delilah. That film became the highest grossing film of the year. It also won two Oscars one for art direction and one for costume design. Based on that success, Lamarr continued to act into the 1950s but her career wasn't advancing as much. In 1953, she became a naturalized American citizen, and in 1959, the Frequency Hopping Spread spectrum patent expired. They also happened to be the same year that George Antheil died.


In 1960, Lamarr received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and by the late 1960s, she was resigned to doing talk show appearances. Here she is with Merv Griffin in 1968.

Lamarr: I want to be a simple, I am, a very simple, complicated woman.

Vamosi: In the 1970s there was a decade of increasing seclusion for Lamarr. She was offered several scripts, television commercials, and stage projects, but none really piqued her interest in the 1980s She retired to Florida. It wasn't until the end of her life that Lamarr was recognized for her technological achievements. David Hughes said he had learned about Lamarr’s innovative efforts through his early 1990s Wi Fi research under a grant from the National Science Foundation. Hughes followed up on his NSF research by lobbying for Lamarr and Antheil to receive the 1997 Pioneer Award given by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Lamarr: I was different, I guess. Maybe I came from a different planet. Who knows. But whatever it is, inventions are early for me. 

Vamosi: Praise for Lamarr continued in the latter years of her life. She became the first woman to receive the vision conventions Bowlby NAS spirit of Achievement Award, known as the Oscars of inventing the following year the Mars native Austria awarded her the victor Kaplan Medal of Austrian association of patent holders and inventors.

Lamarr: I want to sell my life story to Ted Turner because it's unbelievable. The opposite of what people think. The brains of the people are more interesting than the looks, I think.

Vamosi: Then, after the turn of the millennium, in early 2000, Hedy Lamarr died in Florida of a heart attack. She was 85 years old, but her story is still being told at conferences such as the chaos computing Congress and others. And on November 9 2015, a Google Doodle celebrated Lamarr’s 100 and first birthday

Lamarr: Give the world the best you have, and you will be kicked into the sea.  Give the world the best you have anyway.

Vamosi: Want to know more about Hedy Lamarr? I highly recommend you take the time to watch an outstanding PBS documentary, “Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story.” I first encountered this story as a footnote when researching my first book, and I'm happy to see that there are more testimonials and documentaries coming forward about Hetty Amar. Throughout her life she struggled with the fact that people saw her as a beautiful woman and perhaps she was the point though is that she had a brain behind all of that she was actually inventing things all the time. And it's only now that we're beginning to recognize that someone could be both.

Let's keep this conversation going. DM me at Robert Vamosi on Twitter, or join me on subreddit or Discord. You can find the deets at 

The Hacker Mind is brought to you every two weeks commercial free from ForAllSecure. 

For The Hacker Mine, I remained the brains before beauty Robert Vamosi.

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