Female Badasses in History: Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000)
Hedy Lamarr is probably best know for being a world-famous movie actress of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” with starring roles in movies like “Comrade X” with Spencer Tracy and Cecille B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah”. But Lamarr made an even greater contribution than her art when she and composer George Antheil invented an early technique for spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping – both techniques essential for wireless communication. Modern day cell phones and WLAN would not be possible without Lamarr’s and Antheiler’s invention.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1913 in Vienna to a family of the Austro-Hungarian Jewish bourgeoisie. She soon fond her way into acting and as a young teenager worked with max Reinhardt – one of the most famous German actors and acting coaches at the time – in Berlin and started reprising roles in major German movie productions of the 1920s.
Lamarr became world-renown for the first time because of a scandal: In a 1933 Czech film entitled “Ecstasy” she was the star of only the second nude scene in European commercial feature film. In a sequence of scenes lasting ten minutes the movie going audience of Europe saw Lamarr bathing naked in spring and then walking around the woods. The scandal didn’t end there. Also in the film is a close-up shot of Lamarr’s face while she is having an orgasm (rumored to be real which she later objected to in her auto-biography).
The same year Lamarr at age 19 married Friedrich Mandel, an Austrian arms manufacturer and prominent fascist. Mandel was extremely controlling and abusive. He prevented her from pursuing her acting career and even locked her up in his mansion. He also took her to business meetings with his partners where she got interested in military technology. In 1937 after four years of marriage to Mandel, Hedy disguised herself as one of her maids and fled Mandel and his abuse to Paris where she immediately obtained a divorce.
From Paris she went to London where she met Louis B. Meyer of MGM fame. Meyer was very impressed by Lamarr and hired her on the spot. Also he insisted that she change her name for marketing reasons and because of her personal story with Mandel. She chose Lamarr in reference to silent film actress Barbara La Marr who had did in 1926.
Lamarr moved to Hollywood and started a successful movie career in the 1940s, staring alongside Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, and even as comedic support for Bob Hope.
In Hollywood Lamarr lived next door to avant garde composer George Antheil, also a German immigrant and famous for his experiments with automated musical instruments. Lamarr, who had always been mathematically talented and was since her marriage to Mandel interested in military technology, had the idea to use Antheil’s technique for automated pianos as the basis for a secret communications system. In 1941 they built a device out of a piano roll that was able to hop between 88 different frequencies. According to the patent they handed in, it was indented to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for the enemy to detect or jam. They even presented the idea to the US Navy but officials rejected the idea. It was not put into military use until the Cuba blockade in 1962 after the patent had already expired. It was only form the 60s on that military and civil developers recognized how useful the idea was and started adopting it. Today Antheil’s and Lamarr’s technique is the basis for Bluetooth, WLAN, Wi-Fi networks, and cell phones.
Lamarr who very well recognized the use of the technique wanted to join the National Inventors Council, where inventors banded together to develop for the US military in the Second World War, but the president of the council rejected her – one would suspect because she was a woman – and told her she should rather use her celebrity status to sell war bonds.
In the early 1950s Lamarr’s movie career was fainting and she began living in seclusion for basically the rest of her life. She appeared again in the tabloids for a shoplifting incident in 1965 but was largely forgotten in the 1970s. She died in Florida in the year 2000. Her children followed her testamentary wish and took her ashes back to Austria to spread them in the Wiener Wald, an area of woods surrounding the city of Vienna.
It was only after her death that her contribution to science and modern technology was recognized. In 2003 Boeing has ads featuring Lamarr without any reference to her movie career. In 2008 Elyse Singer wrote an off-broadway play about her. In 2004 a documentary entitled “Calling Hedy Lamarr” was made that detailed the story of her’s and Antheil’s contributions. Today not only is a srtee in Vienna named after her but the International Inventor’s Day is celebrated on her birthday, November 9. Lamarr contributed to the world not only through her art but what she and Antheil invented shaped our everyday life today in a very profound way because no matter what you think about it cell phones and Wi-Fi have become a most integral part of society and life.