Actress By Day, Inventor By Night: Hedy Lamarr

Popular actress of the ’40s and often dubbed the most beautiful woman of her time, Hedy Lamarr had a lot going for her. At the age of 19, she starred in the Czech movie Ecstasy (1933), the first known (non-pornographic) film to show sex, nudity and to have a woman to orgasm. Tame to these days standards, the film caused uproar in the US, and the state of Pennsylvania even banned it once it was finally released. The film got her recognised by Hollywood, but her acting alone didn’t give her the legacy she deserves. On the side of her acting career, she also helped develop a radio communications system wanting to aid the allied forces against the Germans in 1941. Little did she know it would be the foundation for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

“Any girl can look glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid”

Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914, in Austria. She starred in her first film at 17 and witnessed international recognition after Ecstasy at 19. Soon after, young Kiesler married Austrian fascist and weapons manufacturer (who later went into business with the Third Reich) Fritz Mandl, who wanted to bring a halt to her acting career by attempting to buy all copies of the film. Mandl was controlling: listening to her phone calls and ensuring she was always watched – essentially keeping her as a trophy wife. It’s more likely that 30-ish year old Mandl had stalked and persuaded 19 year old Kiesler into marrying him. Mandl was an example of the type of attention she received after the controversial film, which she didn’t particularly want.

 

 

She was eventually able to escape her abusive marriage and fled to London where she was recognised by a Hollywood director who signed her onto Metro-Goldwin-Mayor studios (MGM). She had her name changed to Hedy Lamarr, in a bid to flee from her past life. Lamarr moved to the US, just before the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany). It might also be important to note that although Lamarr had a catholic upbringing, both her parents were of Jewish heritage.

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of being Mandl’s trophy wife was her familiarity with engineering, silently absorbing information from his dinner guests. In her time in the US she met and formed a relationship with aeronautic pioneer Howard Hughes, who at the time was deciphering how to make his planes fly faster. Lamarr concluded his wings were too square, and using of the anatomy of fast fish and fast flying birds, she designed a new wing shape.

 

Inventing was her hobby, a hobby that she wanted to put to good use in WWII. Around the beginning of the war, scientists and engineers were finding new applications of radio waves. One of these applications was using radio waves to steer the US Navy’s torpedoes. The problem? As soon as the axis forces found what frequency of radio waves was being used, they could drown out the transmission; the same way screaming at someone who’s trying to have a conversation with another person can drown out whatever the person is saying, ultimately leaving the message to be misunderstood and mistaken.

Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil had an answer to this problem. If the transmitter and receiver constantly and simultaneously hopped from frequency to frequency, it would be impossible for other forces to intercept and block. They developed a model, based on the mechanism that makes player pianos change notes (player pianos were self-playing pianos, popular in the ’20s). They called it frequency hopping, now more commonly known as spread spectrum technology. They patented their invention in 1941 and offered their services to the US military. A secret communications system, designed with the help of a Hollywood sex symbol (whether she wanted to be or not), wasn’t taken seriously and was declined.

The impact of spread spectrum technology wasn’t fully understood until decades later. In the ’60s other engineers explored the ideas in frequency hopping and developed a spread spectrum system that the US used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. By then, Lamarr and Antheil’s patent had expired. More recently their work formed the basis of how Bluetooth works, and even the technology used in Wi-Fi networks.

It was only until 1977 that Hedy Lamarr’s scientific talents were recognised. She and Antheil were awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and she also became the first woman to received the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, an award which is considered the Oscar for inventors. Pullitzer Prize winning Richard Rhodes, writer of Hedy’s Folly, recalled her first words when she was told she would get the award were “Well, it’s about time”.

Hedy Lamarr led a reclusive life up to her death in 2000. She never gained a dime from her invention and time and time again her intelligence was dismissed. She married and divorced six times and had three children, and the last 35 years of her life she chose to remain alone. Perhaps no one she was involved with romantically could see beyond her pretty face and forced sexualisation post-Ecstasy. Now, her legacy is more than being “the most beautiful woman in the world”; her name appearing in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, she is celebrated for her innovative mind and overlooked intelligence.

Hedy Lamarr, Catwoman

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2 thoughts on “Actress By Day, Inventor By Night: Hedy Lamarr

  1. I really love posts of this kind, the ones that talk about the human stories behind the people doing science. And Lamarr’s story inspire both admiration and anger. Admiration for her dogged determination and anger at the larger world for continually reducing her to the fact that she was a woman. A theme that continually finds life in modern society. Even in the enlightened establishment that calls itself objective, science.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree, I always tend to find articles about women in STEM that only tend to list influential women and you never really remember their name afterwards. It’s nice to know the context and their story before and after the science.

      Like

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