Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-born American actress, inventor, and film producer is known more for her acting than for her inventions.
She appeared in 30 movies over a 28-year career, but not many people know that she co-invented an early version of frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication for torpedo guidance.
And that she is the inventor who pioneered the technology that formed the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.
As a natural beauty seen widely on the big screen in films like Samson and Delilah and White Cargo, critics say that society has long ignored her inventive genius.
An only child, her life is a great example of how children are excessively influenced by what they are exposed to. She received a great deal of attention from her father who inspired her to look at the world with open eyes.
He would often take her for long walks where he would discuss the inner-workings of different machines, like the printing press or street cars.
These conversations guided Lamarr’s thinking and at only 5 years of age, she could be found taking apart and reassembling her music box to understand how the machine operated.
This activated her mind towards science and inventions. But her mother who was a concert pianist introduced her to the arts, placing her in both ballet and piano lessons from a young age.
This prepared her for acting and television production. Being extremely beautiful, and intelligent, coupled with parental guidance, she got the better of two worlds.
She used her beauty to attract the needed attention and support for her inventive and creative mind. One journalist did describe her as the only woman alive who used men creditably.
She ensured that every man came into her life paid handsomely for that relationship, either with his money, connections, opportunity for stardom, knowledge transfer or platform for her to invent something. She never allowed any one of them to go free without giving something.
Unfortunately, Lamarr’s brilliant mind was ignored, as 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 by 1930, in a German film called Geld auf der Straβe (“Money on the Street”). However, it wasn’t until 1932 that Lamarr gained name recognition as an actress for her role in the controversial film, Ecstasy.
When Austrian munitions dealer, Fritz Mandl he saw her in the play Sissy, he got mesmerized and they were married in 1933 but it was short-lived. She once said, “I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife … 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.”
She was incredibly unhappy, as she was forced to play host and smile on demand amongst Mandl’s friends and scandalous business partners, some of whom were associated with the Nazi party. She escaped from Mandl’s grasp in 1937 by fleeing to London but took with her the knowledge gained from dinner-table conversation over wartime weaponry.
While in London, Lamarr’s luck took a turn when she was introduced to Louis B. Mayer, of the famed MGM Studios. With this meeting, she secured her ticket to Hollywood where she mystified American audiences with her grace, beauty, and accent.
In Hollywood, Lamarr was introduced to a variety of quirky real-life characters, such as businessman and pilot Howard Hughes.
Lamarr dated Hughes but was most notably interested with his desire for innovation.
Her scientific mind had been bottled-up by Hollywood but Hughes helped to fuel the innovator in Lamarr, giving her a small set of equipment to use in her trailer on set. While she had an inventing table set up in her house, the small set allowed Lamarr to work on inventions between takes.
Hughes took her to his airplane factories, showed her how the planes were built, and introduced her to the scientists behind process. Lamarr was inspired to innovate as Hughes wanted to create faster planes that could be sold to the US military.
She bought a book of fish and a book of birds and looked at the fastest of each kind. She combined the fins of the fastest fish and the wings of the fastest bird to sketch a new wing design for Hughes’ planes. Upon showing the design to Hughes, he said to Lamarr, “You’re a genius.”
She was once quoted as saying that, “Improving things comes naturally to me.” She went on to create an upgraded stoplight and a tablet that dissolved in water to make a soda similar to Coca-Cola.
However, her most significant invention was engineered as the United States geared up to enter World War II. In 1940 Lamarr met George Antheil at a dinner party. Antheil was another quirky yet clever force to be reckoned with.
Through her marriage to Mandl, she had knowledge of weaponries that proved beneficial. And so, Lamarr and Antheil began to tinker with ideas to combat the axis powers. The two came up with an extraordinary new communication system used with the intention of guiding torpedoes to their targets in war.
The system involved the use of “frequency hopping” amongst radio waves, with both transmitter and receiver hopping to new frequencies together. Doing so prevented the interception of the radio waves, thereby allowing the torpedo to find its intended target.
After its creation, Lamarr and Antheil sought a patent and military support for the invention. While awarded U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 in August of 1942, the Navy decided against the implementation of the new system.
The rejection led Lamarr to instead support the war efforts with her celebrity by selling war bonds. Happy in her adopted country, she became an American citizen in April 1953.
Meanwhile, Lamarr’s patent expired before she ever saw a penny from it. While she continued to accumulate credits in films until 1958, her inventive genius was 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 with their Pioneer Award in 1997. Lamarr also became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.
Although she died in 2000, Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 for the development of her frequency hopping technology.
Such achievement has led Lamarr to be dubbed “the mother of Wi-Fi” and other wireless communications like GPS and Bluetooth.
She once said that “the brains of people are more interested in the looks than content”. In the battle between beauty and brain, she won by conquering both and maximizing both.