Austrian-American Hollywood icon Hedy Lamarr was most well-known for her glittering acting career. Appearing in films like Samson and Delilah and White Cargo, the starlet was known for her captivating performances and sublime beauty – her appearance inspired the characters Snow White and Catwoman – and graced cinema screens around the world in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
However, lesser-known are her extraordinary inventions in the realms of science and military weaponry, with her ‘frequency hopping’ radio mechanism later paving the way for ubiquitous technology we enjoy today such as WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth.
Though overlooked by fans of her acting career, Hedy Lamarr’s inventions won her numerous awards in her lifetime, including one described as being on par with an Oscar. She has since been nicknamed the ‘Mother of WiFi’.
Here’s the extraordinary life of actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr.
Her father inspired her love of machines and inventions
Hedwig Eva Kiesler, known as Hedy Lamarr, was born in Vienna in 1914 to a prosperous Jewish family. As an only child, Hedy spent extensive time with her father. Together, they discussed the inner workings of machines such as the printing press and cars, and at 5 years old Hedy could be found dismantling her toy music box to understand how it worked.
Her mother was a concert pianist, so signed Lamarr up for ballet and music lessons. At this time she also began to show an interest in acting and was fascinated by film and theatre, and aged 16 applied to and attended Max Reinhardt’s Berlin-based drama school.
Within a year she had made her cinema debut. However, it was through the Czech film Extase (Ecstasy, 1932) that shot her to stardom. Endless famous films followed until Lamarr’s retirement in 1958. In 1960, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
An unhappy marriage gave her an insight into weaponry
In 1933, just as Lamarr’s career was taking off, she married Austrian munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl who had fallen in love with her after seeing her performing. He immediately prohibited her from any more stage or screen appearances and attempted to destroy all copies of Ecstasy.
Describing Mandl as an “absolute monarch in his marriage… I was a doll… having no mind, no life of its own”, Lamarr was forced to play host amongst her husband’s friends, some of whom were members of the Nazi party. In 1937 she managed to escape by fleeing to London. In spite of her abusive marriage, Lamarr’s various dinner-party conversations with her husband and his friends had taught her crucial information about wartime weaponry.
She developed her passion for inventing alongside others
In London, Lamarr met and started dating businessman and pilot Howard Hughes, who fascinated her in part because of his desire for innovation. Hughes encouraged Lamarr’s inventive talents, giving her a small set of equipment to use in her trailer on set which she would use to work on inventions between takes.
Hughes, who wanted to create faster planes to sell to the US military, brought Lamarr to his aeroplane factories to teach her how they were built and introduce her to other scientific minds. In response, Lamarr studied a book of fish and birds to sketch a new design for Hughes’ planes. He reportedly stated that she was a ‘genius’ for the designs that she produced.
Though little is known about their specific inventions, Lamarr later dedicated more time to her inventing and partnered with eccentric composer George Antheil. Another inventor, Carmelo ‘Nino’ Amarena, recalled speaking to Lamarr, and stated that, “we talked like two engineers on a hot project… I never felt I was talking to a movie star, but to a fellow inventor.”
Lamarr made her invention breakthrough during World War Two
Lamarr made a huge breakthrough in the early years of World War Two when attempting to invent a device to block enemy ships from jamming torpedo guidance signals. She pioneered a way for radio guidance transmitters and torpedo receivers to simultaneously jump from one frequency to another, which made it impossible for the enemy to block a message before it had moved to a different frequency. This was known as ‘frequency hopping’.
The first model was built by George Antheil. However, he confirmed that it was Lamarr’s design, and the pair patented their invention. When they offered it to the US Navy, it was rejected by engineers. However, during the mid-1950s, the Navy shared Lamarr’s invention with a contractor assigned to create sonobuoys, which could be dropped into water to detect submarines.
The use of their technology was later adopted during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, with all US ships on a blockade line around Cuba being armed with torpedoes guided by the frequency hopping mechanism.
She never received royalties for her invention
Lamarr never made a penny from any of her inventions throughout her life. Indeed, though the patent for their frequency hopping technology didn’t expire until 1959, Lamarr and Antheil never received compensation for the use of their concept, which is estimated to be worth $30 billion today.
Lamarr retired from Hollywood in 1958 and became reclusive as time went on, in part because of 5 further marriages and divorces. However, the wide-ranging value and impact of her inventions slowly began to be recognised within her lifetime.
In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil were awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award, and later the same year, Lamarr became the first woman to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, which is so prestigious that it is considered to be the ‘Oscar of inventing’.
Lamarr died at home in Florida aged 85. 14 years later, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and today, she is remembered not only for her glittering career on screen but also for her extraordinary contributions to technology that is used across the world.