Born in 1914 and raised in the cultural Jewish quarter of Vienna, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known as Hedy Lamarr, was the daughter of a pianist and a bank director with a fascination for technology. Most famous for her career as a glamorous actress, few people know of the great inventions that Lamarr worked on, laying the groundwork for our modern day wireless communication technology.
As a teenager, Hedy trained at a theatre school in Berlin and went on to work as an actress on stage and on screen. At age 18, she married the multi-millionaire Fritz Mandl, who had made his fortune as a munitions dealer. The marriage was characterised by his controlling behaviour and restriction of her, and Hedy eventually ran off to Paris in 1937. It was around this time that she met Louis B. Mayer – a cinema mogul from Hollywood. He brought her with him to the United States and named her after MGM studio’s silent-era vamp Barbara La Marr, because he envisioned, that people would gravitate towards her beautiful appearance and be reminded of MGM’s glamorous marketing narrative. This was also supposed to reduce the attention that she got from the controversial 1933 movie ‘Ecstasy’, starring a young Hedy performing what is most likely the first on-screen female orgasm. Despite the attempt to change her image, “Ecstasy girl” was a tenacious and frequently used reference.
The movie ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’, which was released in March of this year, tells the story of Lamarr, drawing a more complete image of her as an actress, inventor, and woman. In the movie, Lamarr’s daughter, Denise Loder, states that her mother was “ahead of her time with being a feminist”; “(s)he has never been called that, but, she certainly was.” Denise also expresses her admiration for her mother’s capabilities as an inventor as well as the manner in which she managed to continually push the boundaries for conformist ideas about women’s whereabouts within different male dominated fields. For instance, Lamarr was one of the first women to own a production company and tell stories from a female perspective.
Sharing her passion for scientific endeavours, aviation tycoon Howard Hughes noticed Hedy’s talent and often consulted her about his own projects. When she showed him her sketches with modifications that would improve the aerodynamics required to increase the speed of an aircraft that he was working on, he called her a genius.
At the beginning of the second world war, Hedy started working on a project with her friend, musical composer, George Antheil. They developed a “Secret Communications System”, which was supposed to prevent Nazis from messing with the radio system and thereby intercepting torpedoes. Lamarr and Antheil’s development of ‘frequency hopping’ consisted of a mechanism whereby radio frequencies would be manipulated at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, forming unbreakable codes. Lamarr was told that she would do more good in the war time as a pin-up model entertaining troops and selling kisses, and their invention was not put to use until later on during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today it is used in wireless communication.
In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil were rewarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, and, later that year, Lamarr was the first woman recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, which is the highest form of recognition for inventors. These awards leave the legacy of Hedy Lamarr with more than just an image of a beauty icon – they recognise her intellectual depths and her crucial contribution to modern technology.
By Ida Larsen, WAVE Intern