There are far better ways to learn about history than watching DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, but every once in awhile, its nerdy writers sneak in facts you probably didn’t learn in school.
Such was the case in Tuesday’s episode, titled “Helen Hunt,” which built major plot points around a lesser-known chapter in scientific history starring actress Hedy Lamarr and an invention that would change the world.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to a Jewish family in Vienna in 1914, Hedy helped her own mother escape Nazi-occupied Austria to the United States at a young age. In her teen years, she started acting in German films, including the sexually explicit and quickly banned Ecstacy.
Soon into her film career, Lamarr married the third richest man in Austria, an arms dealer and manufacturer with ties to Benito Mussolini and, eventually, Adolf Hitler. Both dictators even attended parties at their home. Lamarr would often accompany her husband to business meetings with scientists and developers of military technology. It was at those meetings where she learned the basics of applied science, a field that uses existing scientific knowledge to advance new technologies.
Becoming a virtual prisoner of her controlling husband, Lamarr fled to Paris, where she encountered a Hollywood talent scout and signed an acting contract with MGM in exchange for passage to the U.S. under her new name.
In most history books exploring this glamorous era of Old Hollywood, it’s at this point in 1938 when Hedy Lamarr’s story begins, when the biggest starlets of the ’30s were being dumped by the studios for having become “box office poison,” and Hedy entered the pictures to fulfill Hollywood’s desperate need for a fresh face.
Lamarr eventually grew bored with acting and turned her attention to World War II. Collaborating with her composer husband at the time, she patented a breakthrough radio-control communications system of Spread Spectrum Technology, or “frequency hopping,” useful in torpedoes and other military communications:
By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.
The couple turned the patent over to the U.S. government in hopes that it would help in the war effort. Hedy wouldn’t realize the historical impact of her work for decades, because the U.S. government initially told her they had no interest in her technology. But a modified version was used on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in later military technology such as surveillance drones.
And it doesn’t end with military applications. As Legends of Tomorrow character Dr. Martin Stein states, “Technological advances are cumulative over time.” After the patent was declassified in 1981, the technology Lamarr co-invented paved the way for modern cell phones, WiFi, and Bluetooth. In the fictional world of the TV show, it’s the basis for half the systems on the team’s time ship, The Waverider, a discovery the crew makes when critical devices disappear after Lamarr’s acting career is derailed in 1937, due to an alteration in time.
For a series featuring a team of superheroes, they couldn’t have picked a better historical figure to highlight. Hedy Lamarr is a perfect example of what The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast would call a “forgotten superhero of science.”
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