Brains and Beauty: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Written by Leanna Serras

We do not often expect much out of our actors and actresses except a convincing performance on the silver screen or stage. They are paid simply to play a role well. Occasionally, however, a star shows talent beyond simply playing a part in music and other fields, which is not wholly unexpected given the reality of the entertainment industry. What we never think we will find is the actor or actress who is also an accomplished inventor; yet this is precisely what we have in the case of Hedy Lamarr, a leading actress in the early days of Hollywood and co-designer of a technology that we still depend on today.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria, Hedy Lamarr would go on to achieve several firsts both in motion pictures and in technology. While most remember her as a glamorous woman of makeup, perfume, and fashion, she spent much of her life helping the United States implement a sophisticated military technology. She was discovered as an actress in the latter half of the 1920s and trained in the theater in Berlin, and she would later go on to become one of Hollywood’s leading ladies in the 1930s through the 1950s. One of the films that would help spark her popularity was a Czech film released in 1933 titled Ecstasy, which is notable for featuring her in the first nude scenes ever filmed in a major motion picture.

The same year that “Ecstasy” was released, Hedy married Fritz Mandl who was the chief executive of Austria’s leading arms manufacturer. Sources agree that in the course of the marriage, Hedy learned much about technology and science, and being an intelligent woman, she would eventually put this knowledge to good use in the service of the United States. Her marriage to Mandl did not last long. She fled Austria in 1937 for the shores of America where she would be married five more times and raise three children.

Louis B. Mayer of Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios (MGM) soon signed Hedy to a lucrative contract, and she was acclaimed as “the most beautiful woman in Hollywood” in her many starring roles. Perhaps the most successful film she ever stared in was Samson and Delilah, which was released in 1949. It was also her first color film.

Hedy was from a Jewish background and a fierce opposer of Nazi Germany. Her marriage to Mandl taught her much about radio technology, as Mandl was trying to develop remote-controlled torpedoes that could be launched from submarines. Because radio-operated weapons could be rendered ineffective by jamming frequencies, Mandl never produced the weapons, but Hedy believed that the idea could be effective if the signal that guided the torpedo could be spread across several different radio frequencies. This meant that at best, only part of the signal could be jammed. This would guarantee that a launched torpedo could not be stopped.

George Antheil was an American composer whom Hedy met in 1940. Describing her idea to him, he designed a way to implement her idea based on the 88 keys of the piano. Lamarr and Antheil received a patent for the idea in 1942 and they put it in the hands of the United States military, but the military could not employ it because technology had not yet developed to the point that it was feasible to construct a signal-distributing device. With the later invention of the transistor, however, Hedy’s idea could be made a reality and today the basic technology she conceived of was adopted by the military. It is also one of the inventions that makes cell phones possible.

Hedy’s work is not wide known outside of the scientific and technological community, but it is so important that Germany has designated November 9 th, her birthday, as Inventor’s Day in her honor. Lamarr died on January 19, 2000 at her home in Orlando, Florida. Three years prior to her death she was given an award for “blazing new trails on the electronic frontier” at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference.