Awesome People In History: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr in Let's Live a Little (1948) image from Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, when learning about history, you find things that surprise you.

Those of you who have heard of Hedy Lamarr almost certainly know her as one of the most glamorous and popular Hollywood actresses of the Golden Age, appearing in 32 movies between 1930 and 1958. Yet acting was far from her true passion; she once said of it, “Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” No, her real passion was science. She was an inventor, and one of her most important inventions is probably in the very device you are using to read this blog right now.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, her parents both came from Jewish families, though her mother had converted to Roman Catholicism. Growing up, she was always fascinated by science. Yet she was undeniably beautiful, and that was almost certainly why film producer Max Reinhardt, upon discovering her, decided to hire and train her. Her first runaway hit was the 1933 film Ecstasy, a film that was highly controversial for its explicit (for the time) sexual content. Her first husband, businessman Friedrich Mandl, was so upset he prevented her from leaving his private castle for four years. She would later say that she only escaped by disguising herself as a maid.

She arrived in Paris in 1937, where she met Louis B. Mayer (who we’ve met on this blog before). Mayer brought her to Hollywood, advertising her in his pictures as “The most beautiful woman in the world!” She soon was appearing in movie after movie, appearing alongside other Hollywood greats of the time such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Soon, she was able to use her famous status to help her parents escape the Nazis.

Lamarr was almost always cast in roles that played up her physical appearance. She was a part of the Hollywood social scene, of course, but she didn’t like it. She wasn’t a drinker, and she didn’t like large parties. Deeply unsatisfied with the celebrity lifestyle, she turned to science as her escape in her spare time.

She developed a stoplight that was far more efficient than the ones that hung over America’s streets at the time, and then tried to use chemistry to develop a tablet that would turn ordinary drinking water into soda. The latter invention wasn’t nearly as successful, largely because it tasted terrible, by her own admission. Her most important invention, however, was a response to the outbreak of World War II.

Lamarr was fascinated by remote-control technology, and believed remote-controlled torpedoes could help the U.S. Navy in its fight against the German U-boats, making it easier for the torpedoes to hit their targets. The problem was that it would be fairly easy for the Germans to jam the radio signals. She wanted to figure out a way to overcome this problem, and so she talked about her ideas with pianist and composer George Antheil, one of the people in her social circle. In their conversations, Lamarr was inspired by piano rolls, the devices that allow novelty player pianos to play themselves. She and Antheil worked together on developing a similar device that would quickly switch between random radio frequencies, making it impossible for the Germans to jam. By the time they had figured out which frequency the Americans were using, the thought was, the American device would already have switched frequencies.

She patented her invention in 1942, and presented her idea to the U.S. Navy. The Navy said “Thanks, but no thanks.” They put the idea in their files and forgot about it. However, as World War II ended and the Cold War began, the need for a way to send radio signals securely became urgent, and the Navy pulled the designs out of storage and gave it another look. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the technology was being used on U.S. Navy ships to send messages that would be incredibly difficult for enemies to intercept.

Lamarr called her invention “The Secret Communication System”, but today it is known as spread-spectrum technology, and it is the basis for both WiFi and Bluetooth systems. Still, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that Lamarr would finally be publicly recognized for inventing the thing. She received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997. She died just three years later in Casselberry, Florida. Today, she is the only person who is memorialized both on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. It just goes to show that looks aren’t everything.

One Response to Awesome People In History: Hedy Lamarr

  1. auntleesie says:

    As a kid, I was very into “old movies”, and Hedy Lamarr was a favorite. I never knew about her interest in science! Thanks for sharing this!

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