The Double Life of Hedy Lamarr
Queen of the Screen and Badass (Underappreciated) Inventor
By day, prettiest actress in the world + inspiration for Snow White and Catwoman. By night, inventor and mother of WiFi. To say Hedy Lamarr was an icon ✨is…an understatement.
But, let’s start from the beginning.
On November 9, 1915, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria. As a child, her father would take her on walks around the city, explaining how things functioned. When she was 5, she took apart a music box and put it back together. This, along with her father’s influence, sparked her interest in tinkering.
Then in her teens she became gorgeous. She had always been interested in acting, but with her new beauty she started becoming featured in films across Europe. One of these, Ecstasy, brought her international acclaim for its controversy.
At 18, she married Friedrich Mandl, an extremely rich arms dealer with ties to the Nazi Party. Soon though, she found his ways to be overcontrolling and would later describe the relationship as if she were his doll. Mandl had maids listen in to her phone calls and there was always someone watching her. She knew she needed to escape so plotted an elaborate getaway scheme.
One night during a dinner party, she sprinkled some sleeping powder in her maid’s tea. After knocking her out, she swapped clothes, sewed her jewels into her jacket (seriously), and rode off on her bike into the night.
Once free, she found herself in London. There, she met Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, who was scouting for European talent. He offered her a job, but she famously declined it because the pay wasn’t good enough ($150 a day). Soon after walking out, she had second thoughts and booked a ticket on the same boat to New York as him.
On the boat, she made sure to “coincidentally” cross paths with him many times in striking attire. Unsurprisingly, Mayer rethought the contract offering a higher salary ($500 a day) which she gladly accepted.
To distance herself from being the “Ecstacy lady” and make it easier to pronounce, Mayer persuaded Hedy to change her name. Upon Mayer’s wife’s suggestion, she chose Lamarr in homage to silent film actress Barbara La Marr.
With Mayer promoting her as the “world’s most beautiful woman”, her career took off. Yet, she was often cast in “exotic seductress” roles with the intent to show off her looks, not voice. Bored with roles she wasn’t being challenged in, she would retreat home to invent having never lost her childhood curiosity.
“Improving things comes naturally to me.” -Lamarr
She had briefly dated pilot Howard Hughes but was more interested in his scientific mind than anything else. Hughes recognized her love for tinkering and encouraged it. He gifted her an inventing table and a mini one for her trailer to use in between takes.
When Hughes told her he intended to build the fastest planes ever, she took on the challenge. Purchasing a book on birds and a book on fish, she studied the shapes of the fastest species. Realizing the day’s planes were too boxy, she suggested a new, more streamlined shape inspired by the animals she’d read about. A biomimic before that was even a thing!! 🤩
Hughes praised her as a “genius” and instructed his team of engineers to start building her improved idea immediately.
Everywhere Hedy saw something that could be made better, her inventing mind turned on. Despite having no formal training, she seemed to be innovating in every field. From a better Kleenex box to an improved traffic stoplight and even a tablet that dissolved to make cola, Hedy knew no boundaries. (Although she admitted the latter tasted unfortunately like Alka-Seltzer :D) She even had groundbreaking ideas in plastic surgery which she suggested her plastic surgeon perform on her! What a brave woman.
Things get serious
During World War II, things were looking bleak for the Allies. Hedy confided to a friend that she “didn’t feel very comfortable” sitting rich in Hollywood while so much suffering was going on in the world. She even said she was seriously considering leaving acting to offer her services to the National Inventors Council.
BUT, they told her to just go sell war bonds instead. (Of course they did 😒). So, she did the inventing on her own.
Hedy had heard about how British torpedoes were getting “jammed” or intercepted by U-boats and came up with the idea for frequency hopping. Instead of the whole signal being sent on 1 frequency, it would leap between many so that if it were hacked, only a split second would be revealed.
Teaming up with her friend George Antheil, she filed a patent for her unhackable torpedoes but the Navy refused to implement them despite their clear advantage.
Years later her design was adapted to create the sonobuoy which lead the way for many other applications. Although the sonobuoy was invented before her patent’s expiration, she never received compensation for her invention.
Frequency hopping was also the precursor to Bluetooth, WiFi, and GPS! Sadly, Hedy and Antheil only received formal recognition in the late ’90s and early 2000s, waaaay later. By then she had already stopped going out in public and had to receive the Electronic Foundation’s Pioneer Award over the phone.
On January 9, 2000, Hedy Lamarr died in her sleep of heart disease. In 2014 she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
The world was not kind to Hedy Lamarr. From being unknowingly drugged by Dr. Feelgood to being reduced to nothing more than a sexual object, Hedy faced many struggles. Yet, she didn’t let any of this determine the kind of life she wanted to lead.
Curiosity, truth, and kindness were what fueled her day to day and despite never being truly understood, she has certainly left her mark on the world.
“Give the world the best you have and you’ll be kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.” — Hedy Lamarr
If you enjoyed learning about Hedy Lamarr I HIGHLY recommend watching this documentary:
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story ~ About Hedy Lamarr Documentary | American Masters | PBS
Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr (Ziegfeld Girl, Samson and Delilah) was known as the world's most beautiful woman - Snow…
Another amazing article to read for more in depth is this one:
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