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Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood's secret scientist

The life of Hollywood siren Hedy Lamarr is a patchwork of tropes familiar to anybody who has seen a movie or read a book – the starlet swept off her feet by a rich and powerful man to find herself trapped in a gilded loveless cage, the young girl who dreams of fame and runs off to Hollywood, the smart woman underestimated and overlooked because of her sex and beauty.

But her story is also fascinatingly unexpected, played against a backdrop of some of the 20th century's epic moments, peppered with its well-known figures, and impacting on all of our lives to this day.

Sounds like hyperbole? Well, if you're reading these words on a device or tablet, Hedy Lamarr had a small role to play in that.

The woman who would become Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Keisler in Austria in 1914 and in the swish apartment of her banking family, enjoyed a childhood swaddled from the privations many in the post-war years faced.

The teenaged Hedwig ran away from her Swiss finishing school and talked her way into a job as a script girl at Sascha-Film, the largest Austrian film company of its day.

It didn't take long for the studio to give the pretty script girl jobs in front of the camera, two small roles that led to the famed director Max Reinhardt casting her in his 1931 Vienna season of the play The Weaker Sex.

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Two small roles in German films drew her first notices from the American press, but her next film Ekstase (Ecstacy), shot in Czechoslovakia with the permission of her parents (as she was still a minor) made her name infamous for emoting the world's first female orgasm on screen.

Back on stage in the 1932 production Sissy in Vienna, Hedwig Keissler would find her dressing room full of flowers every night from the man sitting front and centre at every performance.

From the day of her wedding to Austrian munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, Hedwig was miserable, forbidden to perform, and as his jealousy grew, prevented from doing anything but playing the beautiful silent trophy wife for work dinners at one of their many homes.

Guests at these events included the political and military powers of Europe (their table hosted Mussolini, though Hitler and Goebbels apparently kept their distance from the Jewish manufacturer) and as war loomed, Hedwig saw that her opportunity to flee the marriage for America might lay in filling her head with the war plans and munitions technologies being openly discussed in front of her.

However she achieved it – the stories conflict – she positioned herself on the Normandie to America from London where Louis B Mayer offered her a generous contract and his wife re-christened her the more American-sound Hedy Lamarr, and by 1938 she was a screen sensation appearing opposite Charles Boyer in Algiers (the film that coined the saying "Come with me to the Casbah").

She would go on to make 27 Hollywood features, but while other starlets of the day partied at Hollywood nightclubs, Hedy Lamarr poured over her drafting tables, inventing.

Her pal Howard Hughes loaned her a set of chemists to work on her intriguing (but unsuccessful) idea for a stock cube that becomes a soft drink when water is added.

Films aside, her greatest legacy is the patent she and musician George Atheil developed for a "secret communication system" they gifted to the US military in the midst of World War II – an idea years ahead of the digital technology that would make it plausible, and that predescribed how mobile telephones and cordless handsets (amongst many other devices we use every day) function.

How does a glamorous Hollywood star come to the idea, and importantly secure the patent that might arguably contribute to everything from mobile phone telephony to Bluetooth to WiFi?

As with all invention, it is rarely a bolt from the sky but an incremental series of observations, a "cascade of ideas" that slowly brings the inventor to their Eureka moment.

For Hedy, it likely had its origins around those dinner parties in her early married life, where the remote-controlled torpedo and radio-controlled anti-ship glide bombs were being discussed, ideas likely recalled when the Hollywood star, usually showered with gifts, was given the 1939 Philco console radio which had pre-set frequencies that could be changed with a dial-telephone-like remote.

Her idea, articulated in Richard Rhodes' book Hedy's Folly, was for a radio transmitter and its receiver to be "synchronised to change their tuning simultaneously, hopping randomly from frequency to frequency (so) the radio signal passing between them cannot be jammed", a problem plaguing Allied boats and submarines of the day.

Her inventing partner George Antheil, whom she met at a dinner party and immediately saw as a like mind, had himself an axe to grind with the foreign powers – his brother worked at the US Embassy in Finalnd and was one of the war's first American casualties, and he had his own experience adapting technology for creative means as he developed a system for multiple piano-roll playing pianos to "talk" to each other for his ambitious composition Ballet Mechaniques (reviled in his day, adored now).

The way the piano roll works is a pretty good visual way of articulating how "frequency hopping" or "spread-spectrum" communication works – you can imagine how two pianos might simultaneously read the positions on a paper piano roll and change keys (or frequencies) accordingly – and this is how Lamarr and Antheil supposed it might work as they spent six months (and quite a bit of Lamarr's money) developing their idea and consulting with patent attorneys – all while Lamarr filmed the 1941 Bubsy Berkeley musical Ziegfeld Girl.

Like a true patriot, Hedy Lamarr signed her patent over to the US military, hoping it would help them turn the tide of the war, but for a score of reasons it would be decades before it would be remembered and inform later military and commercial activity.

Lamarr turned her considerable talent to helping the military by selling war bonds, and she never publicly complained as billion-dollar companies began springing up turning the concept into products.

In her 80s, a Florida retiree (another great American trope), Lamarr was finally recognised with the Electronic Frontier Foundation's special Pioneer Award.

Cris Kennedy will present a lecture "Hedy Lamarr – Hollywood Inventor" for National Science Week at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, on Wednesday August 16, at 6pm. Free admission. Followed by a screening of Lamarr in Cecil B DeMille's Samson and Delilah at 7pm. Tickets $14.