Hedy Lamarr was born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Austria. In the late 1920, she was discovered as an actress and was brought to Berlin to receive theatre training. When she returned to Vienna, she starred at Gustav Gustav Machatý‘s film, Ecstasy in which she portrayed a neglected young woman married to an older man. The film became notorious for several brief scenes in which Lamarr was completely nude and simulated an orgasm, making her the first actress to do this in a commercial film. It was later claimed that these scenes were a result of Lamarr being “duped” by the director and producer, who used high-power telephoto lenses.
Her career continued in Vienna with a couple of stage roles, including a starring one in Sissy. She gained many admirers during the show. Several men would send her flowers and try to get backstage to meet her. However, only one had succeeded in gaining her affections; Friedrich Mandl. Mandl was an arms merchant with close social and business ties to Hitler and Mussolini. The two fascist leaders would attend parties at the Mandl household. Lamarr would also spend time with many scientists and professionals in military technology through accompanying her husband. Her initial knowledge of applied science and her interest in inventions began with the conversations she listened to in her husband’s meeting.
In the meantime, her marriage to Mandl was becoming less and less affectionate by day. She has claimed that Mandl was extremely controlling and she was “kept a virtual prisoner in their castle home.” So she escaped her prison by getting on a ship to Paris, where she met Louis B. Mayer of MGM. By the time they reached their destination, Mayer convinced her to change her name to Lamarr (as an homage to silent film star, Barbara La Marr) and signed her to MGM for seven years with a $3,000-a-week contract. When they arrived in Hollywood in 1938, she was being promoted as “world’s most beautiful woman”. Her Hollywood career began with Algiers (1938), opposite Charles Boyer. Audiences immediately fell in love with her, while one viewer claimed that “everyone gasped…Lamarr’s beauty literally took one’s breath away.” She acted in many films like Boom Town, Comrade X , White Cargo and Tortilla Flat with actors such as Clark Gable and Robert Young.
Though she could not escape being typecast as the “glamorous seductress of exotic origin” with few lines. The lack of challenging roles bored Lamarr. According to Lamarr’s son, she started creating inventions as an escape from “Hollywood stuff which she didn’t really enjoy.” He said that she had a special invention room with “a drafting table installed with the proper lighting, and the proper tools – had a whole wall in the room of engineering reference books.” Lamarr invented many solutions in this room, including “bouillon” cubes that turn water into a carbonated drink, “a skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion” and a prototype for traffic lights. Although her most influential invention was yet to come.
“Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
During World War II, Lamarr read in the newspaper that radio-controlled torpedoes could be jammed by the enemy forces. With her previous knowledge of weapons from her time with her first husband, she decided that she could find a solution to this problem. She came together with her friend composer George Antheil who also liked to play around with ideas. She was inspired by Antheil’s experimentation with automated musical instruments. They developed a technology from the idea that they could make a radio signal “hop around from radio frequency to radio frequency” similarly to a piano, which would prevent enemy forces from interfering with the torpedo signal.
According to American Heritage of Invention & Technology, the pair received a patent for their invention in 1942. With this technology, the navy would be able to randomize the channel they use for controlling torpedoes and communicating with each other so that no other parties would be able to access the information. Unfortunately, U.S. military did not see the value in this invention at the time, even though Lamarr and Antheil gifted their patent to them. Instead “of silly inventing”, the military suggested to her that she raises money for the war.
Lamarr listened to the advice of the military and raised millions for war using her celebrity and beauty while her invention sat at the back shelf for 20 years. When the military finally decided to use an updated version in the military blockade of Cuba, the idea of frequency-hopping spread like wildfire, becoming the precursor for GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology. Unfortunately by then Lamarr’s patent was already expired.
Towards the end of 1970’s, Lamarr’s Hollywood fame has also came to an end after no project piqued her interest. With her looks fading away, she has found the solice in plastic surgery. But the results did not turn out as she hoped, which forced her to more and more seclusion. In 1997 she finally received some recognition for her invention and was honoured with the Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. According to Rhodes, when Lamarr heard the news she said “Well, it’s about time.” However her lost looks and confidence kept her from attending the event.
A year later, Wi-LAN bought Lamarr’s claim to the lapsed patent and she passed away only two years later on 19 January 2000. Today, she is still remembered mostly for her beauty and sexuality in classic Hollywood films, while only a few acknowledge her contribution to technology.
You can watch this story below in Google’s ode to Hedy Lamarr.
Richard Rhodes – Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World