She was a singular talent and a Hollywood beauty from the MGM “Golden Age”. Yet there was a lot going on beneath the surface with Hedy Lamarr.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, in 1913, she also worked as a scientist and inventor. And without her modern ideas, communications just wouldn’t be the same.
For Lamarr (whose movie star name was the idea of studio head Louis B Mayer), a life of close-ups and worldwide adoration wasn’t enough to stimulate her intellect.
A 2018 Guardian piece described her passion for inventing as a “hobby”. She would squeeze in this substantive sideline when she could.
It wrote, “In an audio recording used in (the documentary) Bombshell, she discusses her love of science, her failed experiments (effervescent cola tablets) and her successes, including streamlining her lover Howard Hughes’s racing airplane. ‘I don’t have to work on ideas, she says. ‘They come naturally.’”
A major contribution to the world we know today started as a means to take on the Nazis. In 1942 she and George Antheil, a composer, patented a “Secret Communications System” intended to control radio frequencies.
The initial seed was thought to have been planted during her marriage to arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl. He is said to have taken her along while he conducted his business. Meanwhile, she developed an interest in military tech.
What was the Secret Communications System? It was an innovative means of directing underwater missiles and was potentially invaluable.
In 2010 The Atlantic wrote that Lamarr and Antheil “figured out how to use the mechanics of the player piano to create the earliest version of the ‘frequency-hopping spread-spectrum’ system. It’s a method that protects radio communications from enemy snoops by switching frequencies in a preprogrammed pattern… Without knowing the exact pattern of the frequency hops, the enemy cannot interpret the signal, meaning Lamarr’s torpedo has much better security.”
Their efforts received an unexpected reaction from the Navy, who seemed not to be able to grasp the basics of the concept. The problem was that they thought “a player piano could never fit inside a torpedo, even though Anthiel explained that they had only used a player piano as an example — the parts in fact could be made small enough for the torpedo.”
The invention was absorbed into the military establishment and took many years to be acknowledged. Eventually the Secret Communications System was hailed as one of the building blocks of wireless communication. Without Hedy Lamarr, there would be no wi-fi.
As for Lamarr’s future, she was encouraged to promote her looks as a pin up over her ability as a scientist, to help troop morale.
Before she arrived in Hollywood she was known for the sensational and explicit (for the time) Czech-Austrian film Ecstasy, directed by Gustav Machatý in 1933. In the production, she fully disrobed and is believed to have performed cinema’s first female climax.
Quoted in the Guardian, Lamarr revealed that “her movements in the love scene were prompted by the director shouting instructions and sticking her with a safety pin, but the effect, in this atmospheric, heavily symbolic and near-silent drama, is remarkably intense.”
This together with other steamy details meant she went the way of many an actress. As she aged, interest in her waned and she stepped out of the spotlight. But her scientific achievements didn’t fade from view.
Biography.com wrote that “in 1997 Lamarr and Antheil were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award, and that same year Lamarr became the first female to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered the ‘Oscars’ of inventing.”
Her legacy is more relevant than ever in 2019. Feature length documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) told audiences about her mental gymnastics as well as her movie roles.
Also in production is a limited series for Showtime about Lamarr’s extraordinary life, starring Gal Gadot.
She may have struggled to be acknowledged as a rounded talent in her time, sadly passing away in 2000. Yet for the upcoming generation of female actresses and inventors, Hedy Lamarr is a touchstone who will inspire for years to come.