This Day in History: Hedy Lamarr, an unexpected heroine
On this day in 2000, Hedy Lamarr passes away. She was a well-known actress—but also a scientist who made a huge contribution to the technological revolution. You rely upon her work every day when you use your cell phone. She’s even been called the “Mother of Wi-Fi.”
Nevertheless, many today have no idea what she accomplished.
Lamarr wasn’t born Hedy Lamarr. Her name at birth was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. She was born in Vienna, spent a brief period acting, then married Friedrich Mandl, a military arms merchant. Lamarr was basically a prisoner in her own marriage, but she also spent time around her husband’s business, learning about military and radio technologies. She would use this knowledge later.
In the meantime, Lamarr escaped and fled to Paris. Then she moved to Hollywood where she became a successful movie star and the “world’s most beautiful woman”!
But behind the scenes, she was an inventor.
“Inventing was her hobby,” the producer of the documentary Bombshell told a reporter. “It was her reflex. It was how she dealt with the problems of the world. And she did it in such a quiet way that most people around her didn’t even know.”
Except Howard Hughes knew. At one point, Hughes was trying to build a faster plane, and he talked to Lamarr about it. Lamarr found books about birds and fish, researching which were the fastest and why. Ultimately, she proposed a wing shape for Hughes’s planes that was based upon what she’d learned.
Hughes pronounced her work “genius.”
In the scientific arena, she is perhaps best known for the “secret communications system” that she developed with composer George Antheil.
Both wanted to contribute to the Nazis’ defeat. Could they improve the way in which torpedoes were delivered? At the time, remember, torpedoes couldn’t be effectively guided. Radio communications between submarine and torpedo were difficult because communications could be intercepted or jammed by the enemy. But Lamarr had an idea: Instead of using one frequency to communicate with the torpedo, the military could use multiple frequencies in a coordinated fashion. A system of “frequency hopping,” would leave the enemy stumped.
Antheil’s contribution to the process? He had previously created an automated piano player. It was now adapted to make Lamarr’s idea work.
The two inventors obtained a patent for their work in August 1942—then they gave the patent to the United States Navy. Astoundingly, the Navy didn’t take the invention too seriously at first. They maintained that a player piano wouldn’t fit inside a torpedo, ignoring suggestions that the components could be made smaller. Or did they simply look at Lamarr’s beautiful face and get sidetracked? They urged her to sell war bonds instead.
Patriot that she was, Lamarr did exactly that.
Today, Lamarr’s technology is considered a precursor to the “spread-spectrum” wireless communications technology used in cell phones and other modern devices.
There is a lot more to Lamarr’s story, of course. Hollywood left its mark on her. She suffered when her beauty faded. She had difficult relationships with her children. She got married (and divorced) too many times. But she wouldn’t want to be remembered for any of that.
She’d surely be much more satisfied to hear that she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Gilbert King, Team Hollywood’s Secret Weapons System (Smithsonian Mag.; May 23, 2012)
Melinda Wenner, Hedy Lamarr: Not just a pretty face (Scientific American; June 3, 2008)
Rebecca Greenfield, Celebrity Invention: Hedy Lamarr’s Secret Communications System (Sept. 3, 2010)
Stephen Michael Shearer, Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr (2010)
Susan King, Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood’s bombshell inventor is subject of new documentary (December 6, 2017)