During the middle of the 20th century, many knew Hedy Lamarr from her roles on the silver screen during MGM’s Golden Age. But Lamarr was not only a movie star, she was also a star in the scientific community as she co-invented a spread spectrum technique used in many of today’s wireless communications.
Born in 1913 to the name Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Lamarr was the only child of Gertrud Kiesler and Emil Kiesler in Vienna, Austria-Hungry. Her father was a bank director and her mother, a pianist. And, taking after her mother, Lamarr soon realized she also had performing in her future, but as an actress, not pianist.
Lamarr moved to Berlin in the late 1920s to train in theater under producer Max Reinhardt. After her stint in Berlin, Lamarr returned to Vienna where she broke into the film industry working as a script girl and later as an actress. Soon after, in 1933, Lamarr landed a risqué role in the film Ecstasy, a role and movie that helped Lamarr gain international attention.
Making Her Way Onto The Silver Screen
In 1933, Lamarr married a wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer by the name of Fritz Mandi. However, Lamarr was quite unhappy in the marriage as Mandi was selling munitions to the Nazis and very controlling of Lamarr and her career. Motivated to flee her marriage, Lamarr flew to the United States and began her acting career in Hollywood as “Hedy Lamarr.” Lamarr’s first American film was Algiers where she co-starred with Charles Boyer; the film was an immediate success.
Praised for her beauty and exotic roles, Lamarr continued to land the leading female acts in films such as Lady of the Tropics alongside Robert Taylor in 1939, Boom Town alongside Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in 1940 and other films throughout the 1940s, like Samson and Delilah in 1949.
Creating an Invention to Assist The War Effort
Alongside friend and composer, George Antheil, Lamarr helped create a communication system to aid the war effort and help the government create a jam-proof radio network to guide torpedoes. During her unhappy first marriage, Lamarr had listened in, and been privy to, conversations regarding torpedoes during her husband’s business meetings. This background knowledge proved useful in Lamarr and Antheil’s efforts. By creating a system comparable to piano rolls, Lamarr and Antheil constructed a frequency hopping structure that constantly changed the radio signals that would be sent to torpedoes. Though the invention was never used by the Army during World War II due to the military’s distrustfulness of civilian inventions and the overall complexity of Lamarr and Antheil’s system, the two received a patent in 1942.
It wasn’t until decades later that the importance of their invention and its wider public usage functionalities were seen. The architecture of Lamarr and Antheil’s invention is used as a frame in a wide range of spread-spectrum communication technology we use today -- from military communications to cell phones, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
However, many didn’t even know of their invention until 1997 when the Electronic Frontier Foundation presented Lamarr and Antheil the Pioneer Award. That same year, Lamarr became the first woman to earn the Gnass Spirit of Achievement from BULBIE for the invention.
Lamarr went on acting, but her films career roles took a downturn. In the end, she married six times and had two children, and adopted another, with her third husband John Loder. In 2000, Lamarr passed away at 86-years old in Orlando, Florida.
The EDN Network reports that Lamarr often wanted to be more widely recognized by scientific communities for her invention and contributions to the development of new technologies, but that she was dismissed due to her fame in film, or turned down simply because she was a woman. This we won’t truly ever know, but Lamarr’s talents extended beyond the screen, beyond her looks and into the advancement and development of many of the modern day technologies we use today. She remains admired for her contributions to both the arts and the sciences.