One of the people I wanted to write about when I started this essay series was a classic film star named Hedy Lamarr. In fact I had to check to make sure I hadn’t written about her before.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria. She was born into a jewish family, but was raised as a Catholic by her mother Gertrud. Her mother was from Budapest and her father was Ukrainian, but she grew up in Austria in the years following the first World War. She was an only child, adored by her parents, although her mother tried to be stricter to balance things out. Her father inspired an interest in learning how things worked, while her mother inspired her artistic side, which focused on Acting rather than musician as her mother had been.
Early on, Hedy decided that acting was a career she was interested in, and worked purposely to get it. She worked as a script girl (forging school absence slips so she could get the job), and small background parts before getting her big break in a 1933 film Ecstasy. The film was controversial in the US, but seen as artistic in Europe. For Hedy, it was a disillusionment of the shine of an acting career. She had been only 18, and was tricked by the director and other crew members into close up nude scenes.
For awhile she considered not continuing, but the film got recognition and other roles were presented to her, and it had always been her dream to be an actress. She continued to do stage work, which brought her to the attention of Friedrich Mandl, an Austrian arms merchant. He was quite wealthy and charming and won Hedy over.
Hedy married Mandl on August 10, 1933. He was 33 to her 18. She found herself often attending parties and business meetings with her husband, who took to being overly protective and prefered to keep her at his side. He had strong ties with the fascist government of Italy, as well as the Nazi government of Hitler. Hitler and Mussolini would even attend parties thrown in the couple’s own home.
While acting remained her career, it was during this time that Hedy was introduced to applied sciences. She would listen and learn during the business meetings and parties, her interest in how things work developed into learning as she listened to the others speak about weapons and the science that went into the development.
However, in 1937, Hedy decided she had enough. She did not appreciate a life as a trophy wife for Mandl, and had become disillusioned with her own country. She left her husband and Austria behind and fled to Paris.
It was in Paris that her life would change. While she was there, she met MGM Studios head LB Mayer. Mayer was impressed with her acting, and convinced her to join MGM, although with a stage name. Hedy was no longer Hedy Kiesler – She became Hedy Lemarr.
Her first film in the United States was Algiers in 1938 opposite Charles Boyer. She won over crowds with her talent and her beauty. Unfortunately this also made it hard for her to get a variety of roles.
She was called the ‘Most Beautiful Woman in the World’, and her roles often relied on that reputation. She became the inspiration for Snow White and Catwoman because of her beauty. It did however leave Hedy bored, as her roles often came with little challenge to the actress type-casted into the role of the stunning foreign woman. When not on set, she was able to focus her intellect on her hobbies-including inventing.
Hedy had no formal education when it came to inventing, just what she had learned from observing her first husband’s business meetings and what she had later taught herself. However, she had caught the bug for inventing. Some were flops – like a tablet that would make a glass of water into a carbonated beverage. In the end it wasn’t much different then Alka-seltzer.
However, some of them were successful, and even well-known. During the second war, Hedy had heard about issues that the military was having torpedo frequencies being interrupted by the enemy and sending their missiles off course. She already knew that her husband and other arms dealers supplying the Axis had been developing ways to jam the frequencies before she left Austria. She decided to work on the problem, and got her friend George Antheil, a music composer, to help her. The two of them had been friends for several years and shared a strong need to help out the war effort. Antheil was a composer, and was known for experimenting with different instruments and mechanical devices to create sound. It was through the use of a piano roll that the two developed the idea for spread spectrum radio. The idea was that sending out a signal that would ‘hop’ across several frequencies – known to the sender and receiver – would prevent someone from turning on the same frequency and jamming the signal from reaching its target. They called this “Secret Communications System.”
They were successful, and patented their designs in August of 1942. At the time, however, the importance of this invention was unknown. Technology made it hard to implement and it was ignored or put on the back burner. In fact, George Antheil, who died in 1959, would not live to see it in action.
However over the next few decades technology started to catch up with Hedy & George’s idea. In the 1960s, the military had taken the idea and developed a version to use in their ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, twenty years after Hedy & George had patented the idea. The full impact of spread spectrum radio would not be felt till a few more decades past and the internet started to grow. It allowed for faster internet connections, and was the underlying work on which GPS, Bluetooth and Wifi were based on.
So you can thank Hedy Lamarr for many of the communications technology that we use every day, such as cellphones, the GPS in our car, using Bluetooth to talk handless through our phones or vehicles, and being able to have mobile internet available to tablets, laptops and phones without the need to have wires dragging behind us.
Hedy’s contribution to science and communication technology was not really recognized until the late nineties, when she received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer award in 1997 for her invention. SHe was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014, four years after her death.
In her personal life, Hedy found more obstacles than success at times. She would marry five more times, have three children, and even write her own memoir. But she would also deal with increasing agoraphobia, discord with her children (in particular her eldest), and public scandals. At one point she was rumored to have an addiction to prescription pills as well. THe various depths of her problems depend on the source of the information. Hedy herself was a very private person, and even admitted later in life to not writing a truthful memoir.
Hedy died on January 19, 2000 at the age of 85. She had lived long enough to see herself become a “classic film star” and see her invention finally be put to real use.
Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy the Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in the world – Richard Rhodes (via Google Books)
To read more in this series, see the Master list