Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood Glamour to Inventive Genius

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Could you imagine life without Wi-Fi right now? The world would come to a standstill without the convenience of the internet, especially Wi-Fi connectivity, the existence of which we owe to the brains of Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr, the actress who rose to fame in Hollywood’s Golden Era, prided herself on being much more than just a pretty face. She invented the first frequency-hopping radio which laid the foundations of secure Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections that are implemented today. Despite her unparalleled beauty being the reason behind her tremendous success on the silver screen, Lamarr emphasizes the appeal of a beautiful mind.

“The brains of people are more interesting than the looks I think,” she states in her 1990 interview with Fleming Meeks for Forbes Magazine.

Background

Born November 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria; Lamarr showed an inclination towards performing arts at a young age. By the age of 12 she was actively participating in beauty contests, and won her first contest in Vienna. She took ballet and piano lessons in her early childhood, further studying acting under the guidance of Austrian director Max Reinhardt in Berlin.

Hedy Lamarr in Sissy
Hedy Lamarr in Sissy

Her early acting career involved several roles in theatrical productions, with Sissy being one of her most well-received stage works. The release of Sissy left Hedy with no shortage of admirers, one of whom being her first husband: Friedrich Mandl. Although initially attracted to Mandl’s intelligence, Hedy soon realized that the marriage was suffocating her mentally.

“I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife. . . . He was the absolute monarch in his marriage. . . . I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own.”

As her dissatisfaction with her marriage grew, Lamarr also grew wary of Mandl’s political connections. Mandl was an ammunitions supplier to the Italian government, heavily leaned towards right-wing politics. Moreover, his obsessive tendency to have unilateral control over Hedy’s life made it increasingly obvious to Lamarr that she desperately needed to reclaim her independence.

Hollywood Career and Inventions

In 1937, Lamarr left Mandl and fled to England. The stars may have aligned in her favour as MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, also happened to be in England scouting for European talent. Lamarr managed to talk herself into a lucrative Hollywood contract. This led to her starring in several films including Algiers (1938), White Cargo (1942), Tortilla Flat (1942), and Samson and Delilah (1949). Her elegance was undeniable, but Lamarr was outspoken about her desire to use her brain rather than capitalize on her looks.

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Hedy Lamarr Portrait
A Portrait of Hedy

Being a Hollywood star had its benefits though, giving her the opportunity to associate with luminaries like John F. Kennedy and Howard Hughes. She had settled quite remarkably, with the Beverly Hills lifestyle clearly suiting her and yet, she turned her focus towards invention. She spent most of her time outside of acting, looking for ways to solve problems in a world she described as “chaotic”.

Lamarr never had any formal training or education in STEM. Her inventiveness stemmed from her creativity and problem-solving intent. Directing her spare time towards invention, Lamarr proposed methodologies to improve traffic stoplights. She also created a tablet that would dissolve in water to form a carbonated cola.

Howard Hughes, the famous American aviator, took note of Lamarr’s ideas and encouraged her inventiveness by providing her with access to several resources. This proved to be worthwhile for Howard as it was an idea put forth by Hedy that led to a breakthrough in designing more aerodynamic airplanes. She proposed biomimicry of the fastest birds and fastest fish that she could find and helped design a more streamlined shape for airplanes based on those images.

Frequency-hopping radio

All the inventions attributed to Hedy Lamarr do not get the attention they deserve due to the public fixating on her glamourous appearance rather than her remarkable brain. Perhaps her most influential contribution, however, would be inventing the frequency-hopping radio. The idea for this invention developed by Lamarr along with George Anthiel, a New Jersey native well-known for his writing and avant garde music compositions while also being an inventor.

Patent for the frequency-hopping radio
Schematic Diagram of the Frequency-hopping Radio

Lamarr and Anthiel focussed on resolving an issue with radio-controlled torpedoes, a newly emerging technology in naval warfare. These torpedoes could be easily countered and set off course by using a signal jammer as all communications to and from these torpedoes were done on the same radio frequency. Thus, emerged the idea of a frequency-hopping signal, one that would bounce between multiple frequencies at random irregular intervals so that it could not be tracked or jammed.

Achievements

Towards the latter years of her life, Hedy Lamarr finally started receiving some recognition as an inventor. She received the Sixth Annual Pioneer Award conferred by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997 as appreciation for her work. Defying the stereotypes set for Hollywood stars in the Golden Era, Lamarr went against all odds to do the things she loved.

image of Lamarr painting

After having her big breakthrough in Hollywood, she could’ve settled for a nice luxurious life in Beverly Hills. Her sheer determination to be more than just a pretty face and analytical abilities set her apart from the rest. Lamarr never received any formal education, nor was she trained by professionals in scientific fields. She simply learnt things the hard way, through trial, error and observation; which gave her a greater understanding of the way the world works. Perhaps this attributed to Lamarr’s ability to make analogies or associations between concepts that otherwise went unnoticed.

Hedy Lamarr’s life made one thing very clear: she wasn’t going to simply stand still and look good for a screen. She understood the beauty of knowledge early on and committed her life to giving back to the world with everything she learnt.

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