Hedy Lamarr – National Women’s History Museum
Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-American actress and inventor who pioneered the technology that would one day form the basis of today’s Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems. As a natural beauty seen widely on the big screen in movies like Samson and Delilah and White Cargo, her inventive genius has long been ignored by society.
Lamarr was originally Hedwig Eva Kiesler, born in Vienna, Austria on November 9, 1914 into a wealthy Jewish family. Lamarr’s only child, Lamarr received much attention from her father, a bank manager and curious man, who inspired her to look at the world with open eyes. he often took her for long walks where she talked about the inner workings of different machines, like the printing press or trams. these conversations guided lamarr’s thinking and she, at just 5 years old, could be found taking her music box apart and putting it back together to understand how the machine worked. Meanwhile, Lamarr’s mother was a concert pianist and introduced her to the arts, placing her in ballet and piano classes from an early age.
Lamarr’s brilliant mind was ignored and her beauty took center stage when she was discovered by director max reinhardt at age 16. she studied acting with reinhardt in berlin and was in her first small film role in 1930, in a german film called geld auf der straβe (“money in the street”). However, it wasn’t until 1932 that Lamarr gained recognition as an actress for her role in the controversial film, Ecstasy.
Austrian ammunition dealer fritz mandl became one of lamarr’s ardent admirers when he saw her in the play sissy. Lamarr and Mandl were married in 1933 but it was short-lived. She once said: “I knew very early that I could never be an actress as long as she was his wife…he was the absolute monarch in his marriage…I was like a doll. I was like a thing, an art object that had to be guarded and imprisoned, without a mind, without a life of my own.” She was incredibly unhappy, as she was forced to host and smile on demand among Mandl’s friends and her scandalous business associates, some of whom were associated with the Nazi party. She escaped Mandl’s clutches in 1937 by fleeing to London, but she took with her the knowledge gained from after-dinner conversations on the weapons of war.
While in London, Lamarr’s luck changed when he was introduced to Louis B. mayer, from the famed mgm studios. With this encounter she secured her ticket to Hollywood where she wowed the American public with her grace, beauty and accent. In Hollywood, Lamarr met a variety of quirky real-life characters, including businessman and pilot Howard Hughes.
lamarr dated hughes, but what interested him most was his desire to innovate. His scientific mind had been stifled by Hollywood, but Hughes helped jumpstart the innovator in Lamarr, giving him a small set of gear to wear in his on-set trailer. while he had an invention table set up in his house, the small set allowed lamarr to work on inventions between takes. Hughes took her to her aircraft factory, showed her how planes are built, and introduced her to the scientists behind the process. Lamarr was inspired to innovate as Hughes wanted to create faster aircraft that could be sold to the US military. he bought a fish book and a bird book and looked at the fastest of each type. He combined the fins of the fastest fish and the wings of the fastest bird to sketch a new wing design for Hughes’s planes. Showing the design to Hughes, he told Lamarr, “You’re a genius.”
lamarr was truly a genius, for the cogs of his inventive mind kept turning. he once said, “improving things comes naturally to me.” he then created an improved traffic light and a tablet that dissolved in water to make a coke-like soft drink. However, his most important invention was designed when the United States was preparing to enter World War II.
In 1940, Lamarr met George Antheil at a dinner party. Antheil was another quirky but clever force to be reckoned with. Known for his writing, soundtracks, and experimental musical compositions, he shared the same inventive spirit as Lamarr. She and Antheil talked about a variety of topics, but one of her biggest concerns was the coming war. Antheil recalled, “Hedy said she didn’t feel very comfortable sitting there in Hollywood and making a lot of money when things were that way.” after her marriage to mandl, she had knowledge of ammunition and various weapons that would prove beneficial. and so lamarr and antheil began toying with ideas to combat the axis powers.
the two of them came up with an extraordinary new communication system that is used with the intention of guiding torpedoes towards their targets in war. the system involved the use of “frequency hopping” between radio waves, with the transmitter and receiver hopping to new frequencies together. doing so prevented interception of radio waves, allowing the torpedo to find its intended target. After its creation, Lamarr and Antheil sought a patent and military support for the invention. While we were granted patent number 2,292,387 in August 1942, the Navy spoke out against the implementation of the new system. The rejection led Lamarr to support the war efforts with the celebrity of him selling war bonds. Happy in her adopted country, she became a US citizen in April 1953.
meanwhile, lamarr’s patent expired before she saw a cent of it. Although she continued to rack up film credits until 1958, her inventive genius had yet to be recognized by the public. It wasn’t until Lamarr’s later years that she received any awards for her invention. The Electronic Frontier Foundation jointly awarded Lamarr and Antheil its Pioneer Award in 1997. Ella Lamarr also became the first woman to receive Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. Although she died in 2000, Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the development of her frequency hopping technology in 2014. Such an achievement has led to Lamarr being nicknamed “The Mother of Wi-Fi” and others. wireless communications such as gps and bluetooth.