With more and more women being recognized for their contributions to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields, stories are emerging about all of the women in history who paved the way, and more than likely never got the acknowledgement they deserved at the time. One of those women is Hedy Lamarr, one of the best-known actresses of the ’30s and ’40s, who was dubbed one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen, even being used as the inspiration for both Snow White and the original Cat Woman. While her face would be the thing to open many doors in her life, it was really her mind that was her most striking, and least appreciated, feature. A patent that she was awarded in 1941 would become the blueprint for the GPS, Bluetooth and Wifi technology we use today, and it would take almost 50 years before people would even learn her story.
Journalist Fleming Meeks was the first person to share the unheard story of Hedy Lamarr with the world, with an article published in May of 1990 in Forbes magazine. It was born from hours of taped interviews with the then 76-year-old Lamarr, some of which would go unheard until 2016 when Meeks rediscovered them; these lost interviews would be used for the 2017 documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.” In a detailed account of her life, on and off screen, people were able to hear her story in her own words.
Born in the 19th district of Vienna in 1914, Hedy, then Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, had an inventor’s mind from the very beginning. By age five, she was already known for taking apart music boxes and other toys to see how they worked, just so she could put them back together. Her father, a bank director, had always had an interest in technology as well, and they would regularly take walks downtown and talk about the streetcars and how they worked. The 19th district of Vienna was a richer neighborhood, and Hedy would attend a private school where she excelled at and favored chemistry over all other subjects. Despite her notable intelligence, it was from a very young age that she would be regarded for her looks above all else.
At 17, she began working with a small film studio in Vienna, and would ultimately be cast in a role that she felt followed her for her entire life. The 1933 film “Ecstasy” was publicly denounced by both the Pope and Hitler, and Hedy entered her adult life with that mark. When she was 19, she married Fritz Mandl, a man dubbed “The Henry Ford of Austria.” By 1937, war seemed inevitable, and Hedy became more aware of Mandl’s dealings with prominent Nazi figures (even recounting, later in life, a dinner party at their home attended by Hitler). This compounded with the sudden death of her father would prompt Hedy to flee to England, and Mandl would go on to be a major supplier of arms to German troops when WWII broke out.
It was in England that Hedy met Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Mayer, with questionable morality, had traveled to England with the intent of “rescuing” young, could-be actors who had fled Germany. The hope was to entice them to Hollywood, and the safety of America, while paying them as little as possible. Hedy was offered $125 a week, which she turned down. Regretting her decision after the fact, she booked herself on the S.S. Normandie, the same ocean liner Mayer was taking back to America. Mayer noticed her again, and this time offered her $500 a week, which she accepted, and learned enough English on the trip to start figuring out how to read scripts.
Her first film was “Algiers,” starring opposite Charles Boyer, the already well known French-American actor, and she began to get people’s attention. While Hedy enjoyed some of the benefits reaped from this attention, she found it hard to find people who appreciated her for who she really was.
“You never knew if they loved you or the fantasy of you.”
Her big break came in 1940, with the movie “Boom Town.” She played opposite major stars Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and her success in the film solidified her presence, both publicly and professionally. Behind the scenes, however, this meant signing a rigorous seven-year contract with the studio, working all day, every day. They were even given “vitamins” by Hollywood doctors, which unsurprisingly were just incredibly addictive amphetamines to help actors stay awake during 18-hour shoot days. Even when she went home though, Hedy couldn’t let her mind rest.
She spent all of her non-filming time at home, inventing things. She had an entire space dedicated to her work at home, with some of her equipment being given to her by Howard Hughes. Hughes would become a major catalyst in her life in terms of inspiring her to create things. Hughes himself had his own intertwined relationship with screen and science. An inherently gifted individual, who built Houston, Texas’s first wireless radio transmitter at age 11, Hughes would be remembered as both a visionary director and major contributor to the world of aviation.
It was during development of his second aircraft, the H-4 Hercules (nicknamed the “Spruce Goose”) that Hughes would first see the brilliance of Hedy’s mind. He had mentioned to her that his original prototype was too slow, to which she responded with a new wing and body design, based on research she had done into the fastest fish and birds. Hughes would end up incorporating her designs into his final model. It would be said of the two of them that their eccentricities were two halves of the same puzzle, and when asked about him by Meeks, she responded, “very strange person, that one. Very brilliant, but very misunderstood as well.”
By this time, German U-boats were dominating the Atlantic and threatening to overpower any existing Allied forces. A major problem for Britain was the insecurity of their radio communications. It was relatively easy for the Germans to intercept and jam their frequencies, which cut off communications, and the efficacy of their torpedoes. It was in thinking about this that Hedy came to the realization that would lead to one of the most utilized pieces of technology in the past century: frequency hopping. The idea came to her while she was experimenting with a Philco radio remote control. A new innovation at the time, this “magic box” controller allowed listeners to be able to change the station on their radio’s remotely. Hedy took this concept and explored if it could be applied in the same way to the communication between ships and torpedoes.
She had the idea, but lacked the formal training and education to execute it all on her own. Enter an unlikely solution to this problem: American composer George Antheil. In his autobiography “Bad Boy of Music,” Antheil dedicated an entire chapter to his work with Hedy titled “Hedy Lamarr and I Invent a Radio Torpedo.” Antheil had his own motives for contributing to the war effort. On June 14, 1940, his younger brother, American diplomat Henry Antheil, was on a flight that was shot down by Soviet aircraft over the Gulf of Finland. His death seemed to be the karmic push in Hedy’s direction.
Well-versed in pneumatic player pianos, Antheil was able to adapt the way piano rolls activated piano keys, and apply it to activating radio frequencies between a ship and its torpedoes. They developed an encryption system of 88 different frequencies, using two separate piano rolls starting at the same time and speed. What made it secure was the speed and number of times it would change frequencies. The entire communication would be almost impossible to intercept, because catching one frequency meant one fraction of a second of the communication, not the entire thing.
In a letter written to a friend during his time spent working with Hedy, he described her as “an incredible combination of childish ignorance and definite flashes of genius.”
They traveled to Washington D.C. with their idea, and met with the National Inventors Council, where they were teamed up with Cal Tech physicist Sam McKeown to help them hone the fine details. Hedy and George were awarded the patent for their idea on June 10, 1941, which they then donated to the National Inventors Council. It was viewed as a potential defense aide and, should it be used or further developed, the two would be paid accordingly. The Navy was presented with the idea, which they promptly dismissed as nonsense.
Legendary director Mel Brooks joked in his interview for “Bombshell:” “Shame on them. See? This is why I was in the Army, because the Navy was never that bright.”
Following the rejection, Antheil was ready to move on. A composer by design, he didn’t have the same drive Hedy did to pursue the invention any further. Despite the patent seemingly disappearing in a top-secret file somewhere, Hedy wanted to be recognized for her intelligence, and she knew it was a good idea. She was stonewalled by everyone she approached about it. She was essentially told to “go sell war bonds like all the other young actresses.” So she did. $25 million worth, in fact (which today would be over $343 million). Since she wasn’t being taken seriously as an intellectual, she leaned into her image in order to support the war effort in any way she could. Her daughter, Denise, made the poignant observation about women’s roles during that time, saying “You don’t get to be Hedy Lamarr and smart.”
In 1942 the U.S. government seized the frequency-hopping patent, claiming it to be “property of an enemy alien,” as Hedy was not yet an American citizen. This hurt her, especially after all she had done to raise money and morale for service members. She would go on to be cast in movies with poor scripts, where her main contribution was her looks.
“I’ve been everything, but I’ve never been me.”
In the late ’40s and early ’50s, she would produce and star in a few of her own films, and her independence and emerging unwillingness to be portrayed in certain ways earned her the label of being difficult to work with.
The next two decades presented a lot of personal and professional challenges. She felt, in some ways, as if she had never lived up to her potential. She was strongly impacted by the pressure to live up to others’ impossible physical expectations of her, especially as she began to get older. She became a recluse of sorts for a long time, distancing herself from even her closest friends and family. In 1969, she decided to write to an old friend who had been in the Navy, asking about her patent. She ended up finding out a lot more than she anticipated.
It turns out that her idea had been developed, and used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When President Kennedy had sent ships to blockade Cuba, each and every one of them were equipped with the frequency-hopping technology she had invented. Hedy wanted to know more, especially regarding how long her patent had been used for. Aside from recognition, she also deserved to be paid if the patent had been used prior to its expiration, which would have been 1959. In “Bombshell,” David Hughes, a frequency-hopping expert, posits that her patent may have also been used by a naval engineer in 1955, when working on a more advanced version of the sonobuoy, a device that detected submarines and transmitted the information to passing naval aircraft. It’s widely believed that her patent was used more than once before its expiration.
In 1997 — over fifty years after she developed a piece of technology that would revolutionize so many aspects of not only military communication, but mainstream societal innovations as well — the Navy, Milstar and Lockheed Martin publicly recognized Hedy, and gave her an award. Now uncomfortable in the public eye, she had her oldest son accept the award on her behalf.
In his speech, he thanked the organizations, saying, “she would want to be remembered as someone who contributed to the wellbeing of humankind.”
Three years later, in January of 2000, Hedy died peacefully in her sleep.
In 2017, then Military Satellite Communications (MILSATCOM) Staff Director Maj. Darrell Grob discussed the importance of her contributions, and how it impacts Milstar, the satellite system responsible for the secure communications of high-priority military leaders and the President.
“The work that Hedy Lamarr did in her patent, Milstar took that technology in order to implement frequency hopping on the system, and that’s what we trust our most important nuclear command and control message with.”
A recent Oxford study determined that prior to 1965, female inventors only made up 2-3% of all inventors, in any field. Up until 1957, top universities even had caps on how many women they would allow into STEM-related programs. In 2020, that number of female scientific researchers is still below 30%. Women were regularly discouraged from entering these fields, and those are repercussions we are still combating today through perpetuated social narratives and expectations of women.
The legacy Hedy Lamarr leaves behind is far beyond her objective beauty. Throughout her life, she was continually placed into a box of other peoples’ design. When she tried to escape it, they made the box stronger. In her 86 years, it wasn’t until the very end that she felt as though people finally saw her. Despite all of that, though, she always wanted the best for everyone. In her final interview with Fleming Meeks, she ended the call by paraphrasing author Dr. Kent Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments (which are often misattributed to Mother Theresa, as she displayed them at her children’s home in Calcutta):
“Before I go I’ll read you something pretty” she said. “People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway. The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shoved down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. Give the world the best you’ve got and you’ll be kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.”