Hedy Lamarr ‘s Hollywood career spanned almost three decades and thirty films. Her film career lead her to starring roles along with some of Hollywood´s icons, such as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy.
Catapulted to world fame in her first Hollywood film in 1938 she remained a box-office attraction until her last film in 1958. Famously, it was Lamarr who coined the phrase; “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
However, and most unusual in the case of the typical Hollywood star of any era, Lamarr was an avid science and invention enthusiast. Despite being primarily self-taught, Lamarr worked on various hobbies and inventions in her spare time, including an improved traffic stoplight and a carbonated drink in tablet form. Whilst dating the elusive aviation tycoon Howard Hughes, Lamarr had his entire team of scientists and engineers at her disposal. Lamarr later said that Hughes was one of the few people who knew of her interest in science and inventions and actively supported her. However, there is one specific invention that Lamarr would later become famous for – frequency-hopping spread spectrum. More on that later.
Lamarr was born on November 9, 1914, as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Jewish parents in Vienna. Her father was a successful banker and her mother a pianist. As a girl, Lamarr always wanted to be an actress. By 1930, her film career in Europe began and by 1933 she had met and married Fritz Mandl, her first of six husbands.
In 1937 Lamarr´s marriage to Mandl was failing and she decided to flee, in no small part to the political situation in Europe at the time. Despite having converted to Catholicism upon marrying Mandl, Lamarr was often shunned by directors and studios due to her Jewish descent and Mandl´s overbearing behaviour towards her. Escaping to Paris, reportedly disguised as her maid, Lamarr later found herself in London where she met MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer. Lamarr, still going by her maiden name Kiesler, managed to negotiate a favorable contract with MGM and agreed to Mayer´s suggestion of a name change. Paying homage to a beautiful silent film star of the 1920´s Barbara La Marr, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler thus became known as Hedy Lamarr.
During WW II, Lamarr, along with many other Hollywood headliners, sold War Bonds to finance the Allied war effort. She wanted to join the National Inventors Council but was told that she would better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds. Undeterred, Lamarr, along with her friend, pianist and composer George Antheil, began working on a collaborative project.
Lamarr had learned, through her fund-raising work, that radio controlled torpedoes, an emerging technology at the time, could easily be interferred with by means of radio jamming and thus set off course. Lamarr, assisted by Antheil, created a frequency hopping signal that could no be tracked or jammed. Lamarr´s ingenious idea, along with Antheil´s creation of a player-piano mechanism with radio signals, they drafted designs which they patented.
Their invention was granted patent but was technologically difficult to implement. It is also worth highlighting the Navy´s reluctance to consider inventions coming from outside the military. Nevertheless, the invention was classified as “red hot” meaning top secret and viable for future use. Frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology was first adapted in 1957, before the expiration of the patent, for a sonobuoy by the US Navy. By the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, an updated version of Lamarr´s and Antheil´s design was installed on US Navy ships. Today, various spread-spectrum techniques are incorporated into Bluetooth technology and are similar to methods used in legacy versions of Wi-Fi.
It is unfortunate for both Lamarr and Antheil that their contributions weren´t recognized until the late 20th century and early 21st century. Lamarr and Antheil were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 2014. Indeed, it´s worthy to reflect on Lamarr´s achievement in light the generational sexism and exploitation she often encountered at the hands of studio chiefs and directors.
Lamarr continued, in the face of adversity, to pursue her interest in science and inventions putting to shame those who think that a girl, let alone a Hollywood superstar, is just a pretty face or that the lack of formal education or training is a hindrance to good ideas and innovation.
Hedy Lamarr passed away on January 19, 2000. The date of her birth, November 9, is today marked as Inventor's Day.
Translated by Jonas Helgason, author Jelena Kalinić
Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.