Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful actresses of her day, but she turned to inventing after she became bored with acting and made some pretty incredible discoveries. She has quite the story!
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna in 1914. Her father was born in Ukraine to a Jewish family and worked as a successful director of a bank. Her mother was born to an upper-class Jewish family in Budapest and was a pianist. Her mother converted to Catholicism and raised Hedy as a Christian. When Austria fell under Nazi rule, Hedy helped her mother escape to the United States where she eventually gained citizenship.
Hedy was discovered by German producer Max Reinhardt in the 1920s and taken to train in theater in Berlin. She eventually returned to Vienna and worked in the film industry first as a script girl, then as an actress. At the age of 18, she starred in the Czech film Ecstasy where she gained international fame when her face was shown during an orgasm scene. The movie also featured some brief nudity. She felt that she had been tricked as the scenes were filmed from a distance with a high-power telephoto lens. That gives me so much rage!
Hedy eventually went on to act on stage, and won accolades for her roles as Empress Elisabeth in Sissy (!!!). As with many a young and talented beauty, she amassed admirers who would wait backstage for her after performances. One especially persistent admirer was Friedrich Mandl. He was the chairman of Hirtenberger Patronen-Fabrik, an Austrian armaments firm, and a prominent fascist. He was also very very rich. Hedy eventually found him “charming” and “fascinating.”
They married in 1933 when Hedy was 18 and he 33. Her parents (who were both of Jewish descent) strongly disapproved of the match because of his ties to Mussolini. Like many a rich man before him, he proved to be extremely controlling and would not let her continue acting. She later claimed that he kept her as a prisoner in their home.
He was the third richest man in Austria and sold munitions to Mussolini. He also had ties to the Nazis and held lavish parties at their house, Schloss Schwarzenau, where both Mussolini and Hitler were in attendance. Hedy was able to travel with her husband to meetings where he met with scientists and people involved in military technology. These meetings introduced Hedy to applied sciences and stoked her interest in the field.
She eventually got fed up with Mandl, and left him and his country behind by fleeing to Paris. She wrote of the marriage, “He was the absolute monarch in his marriage…. I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own.” Yikes, girl.
Hedy met Louis B. Mayer while traveling in England, and he soon convinced her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr and move to Hollywood. He promoted her as the “world’s most beautiful woman.”
She made her American debut in Algiers, and it was said that she was so beautiful that the audience gasped when she appeared on screen. She was quickly typecast as an exotic seductress and went on to appear in several films with leading men such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Hedy went on to star in 18 films from 1940 to 1949. Her greatest success was her role as Delilah in Samson and Delilah which was the highest grossing film of 1949.
She was frustrated with the lack of acting challenges, and her career declined through the 1950s. Like many beautiful actresses, she was offered roles emphasizing her beauty and sexuality with few actual lines. She was one of the few European actresses to achieve assimilation into American culture and become a legitimate star.
To deal with her boredom during her career, Hedy took up inventing. Why not? She taught herself, and started developing inventions like an improved traffic light and a tablet that could turn water into a carbonated drink. The infamous tycoon Howard Hughes was one of the few people who knew of her inventive nature. While they dated he supported her “tinkering” and ensured that his team of science engineers were at her disposal. At one point, Hughes was trying to make his planes fly faster, and Hedy realized that the squareness of the wings was the issue. She bought a book on fish and birds, then analyzed the shape of the fastest species to create a new wing shape. You know, as one does on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
During World War II, she was driven to find a way to help the Allied cause after German subs started firing at passenger ships. She had learned about torpedoes from her time with Mandl and was able to figure out that a jammed signal for radio-controlled torpedoes would send them off course. She contacted her composer and pianist friend George Antheil to help her develop a frequency-hopping system to help the allies avoid jammed signals. George was famous for “synchronized compositions” which included the Ballet mécanique that was scored for 16 synchronized player pianos. The technology to coordinate so many cables did not exist at the time, but he was able to eventually complete the piece with fewer pianos. His skills combined with Hedy’s ideas lead to their eventual patent. This blows my mind. I cannot even fathom having a brain that could think of any of this.
George and Hedy
They eventually developed a transmitter and receiver that would hop at short, random time intervals to prevent jamming as the signal would be too short-lived on each frequency. They eventually settled on 88 frequency changes as a nod to the keys on a piano. They got a patent granted in 1942, but the Navy was not receptive to using devices that came from outside sources.The Navy kept the patent in a top secret file, but pulled it out when they began developing sonar. They planned to create a buoy that could detect submarines then transmit the information to airplanes above. When they started looking for a way to make the signal between the buoy and the plane jam-proof, they went back to the frequency-hopping system proposed by Hedy and George.
From there, military and private corporations started creating their own technology based on their invention. Hedy and George’s spread spectrum technology contributed to the eventual development of Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth!! That is so freaking cool. It was not until the 1990s during the development of wireless communications for computers that people realized that Hedy and George had never been truly recognized for her patent.
In 1997, she and George received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award for people whose lifetime achievements include significant contributions to society in the arts, sciences, business, or invention. In 2014, they were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Hedy went into seclusion in the 1970s and eventually settled in Miami Beach. She was married and divorced a total of six times. Can’t say the woman did not fully try that whole marriage thing out. Her last divorce was in 1965, and she never remarried after that point which seems like it was probably a good idea. She had three children. She only communicated with the outside world via telephone until she died in 2000.
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Los Angeles Times