Hedy Lamarr: More Than Just a Bombshell

Kendall Claar

(Photo: Lazlo Willinger)

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. She would rise to fame as an actress, but it is her role as an avid inventor that cements her legacy in history.

Lamarr was born the only child of Gertrud Kiesler née Lichtwitz, a pianist, and Emil Kiesler, a bank director. Throughout her childhood, Lamarr showed an interest in acting and was fascinated by theater and film. Pursuing her interests, she began to take acting classes. One day she forged a note from her mother and went to Sascha-Film, which at the time was the largest Austrian film production company of silent and early sound films, and was able to secure a job as a script girl. While there, she had a few minor roles in Money on the Street and Storm in the Water Glass.

It was at the age of eighteen, in early 1933, when Lamarr was cast in her breakout role, portraying the neglected young wife of an indifferent older man in Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy. According to Time Magazine, “The Czech movie was the first non-pornographic film to feature a woman performing an orgasm on screen…” The film gained recognition worldwide, with some regarding it as an artistic work and others considering it overly sexual. She unwittingly became a pioneer of female sexuality. Following the release of the film and the response it elicited, she became dismayed and disillusioned about taking other roles.

The response to the film led to her withdrawal from acting. It was during this withdrawal that she met and married her first husband, Friedrich Mandl, who was an Austrian military arms merchant and munitions manufacturer. Lamarr often accompanied Mandl to business meetings, where he conferred with scientists and other professionals regarding military technology. These meetings acted as her introduction into the world of applied science and nurtured her untapped talent.

Traveling to London in 1937, Lamarr met Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio head Louis B. Mayer, who offered her a movie contract in Hollywood. He also persuaded her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr, in part to distance her from her real identity and the “Ecstasy girl” reputation associated with it. The surname was chosen in homage to the silent film star Barbara La Marr, on the suggestion of Mayer’s wife, who admired the star. Mayer then brought Lamarr to Hollywood in 1938, promoting her as the “world’s most beautiful woman.”

Lamarr became a true film star with her performance in Algiers (1938). She would go on to star in Lady of the Tropics (1939), Boom Town (1940), H. M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), and White Cargo (1942), all films for MGM. Her greatest success was as Delilah in Cecil B. Demille’s Oscar-winning Samson and Delilah (1949), which was a critical and commercial success. By the end of career, she had starred in upward of thirty films. She was honored for her contribution to film with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

Although Lamarr had no formal training and was largely self-taught, throughout her career, she worked in her spare time on various hobbies and inventions. Some of these include an improved traffic stoplight and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink. Howard Hughes, an American business magnate, inventor, record-setting pilot, and film director, was one of the few who knew of Lamarr’s inventiveness. In fact, she suggested he change the square design of his airplanes to that of a more streamlined design, based on pictures of the fastest birds and fish she could find. Hughes even put his entire team of scientists and engineers at her disposal, saying that they would make anything she requested of them.

During World War II, radio-controlled torpedos, an emerging technology in naval warfare, were easily jammed and set off course. After learning of this, Lamarr decided to put her skills to good use and decided to create a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed. She then enlisted the help of her friend, composer, and pianist George Antheil to develop a device that could do so. They succeeded by synchronizing a miniaturized player-piano (a self-playing piano) mechanism with radio signals. They then followed up by drafting designs for their frequency-hopping system and filing for a patent. Their invention was granted a patent (U.S. Patent 2,292,387) on August 11, 1942. At the time, it was technologically difficult to implement, and the U.S. Navy was not entirely receptive to considering inventions coming from outside the military. It was finally implemented as an updated version of their design in 1962 on Navy ships, during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Her frequency-hopping technology would later become a precursor to the Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth technologies now used by billions all over the world today. By some estimations, the market value of her invention is worth upward $30 billion today. Sadly, to this day, Lamarr has never seen a cent from the multi-billion-dollar industry her idea paved the way for. However, in 2014, Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Lamarr used to say, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Hedy Lamarr proved that there is more to women than just their looks. Hedy Lamarr is a reminder that women can have both beauty and brains, and that you should never underestimate what women are capable of doing. Hedy Lamarr was more than just a bombshell.