Hedy Lamarr was more than a movie star. Her inventions helped revolutionize the way we communicate.
Published March 28, 2018
Published 3 months ago
Hedy Lamarr starred in a string of classic Hollywood films opposite the likes of Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart, was dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and supposedly served as the inspiration for Disney’s Snow White and DC Comics’ Catwoman — all by the time she turned 30. Even more remarkable? Acting was just her day job.
Lamarr’s passion was inventing — everything from bouillon-cube substitutes for Coca-Cola to new shapes for airplanes. Most significantly, some of her scientific work led to the development of communication technologies like Bluetooth and WiFi.
Getty Images recently spoke to filmmaker Alexandra Dean about her new documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” which debuted at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and will air as part of PBS’s American Masters series in May 2018. You can view a clip of that interview here. Below, FOTO looks back at Lamarr’s singular career.
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An Austrian in LondonLamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, and she acted in several Austrian, German, and Czechoslovakian films before marrying Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy arms manufacturer, in 1933. Mandl was a controlling husband, and he put a stop to her acting career. He was also friendly with fascist dictators. Lamarr fled Austria and their marriage in 1937, eventually landing in London, where she met Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM (pictured above, right). Mayer signed Lamarr to a studio contract and began promoting her as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveMove Over, BubIn “I Take This Woman” (1940), Lamarr played a stylish young woman who falls for a good-hearted doctor played by Spencer Tracy. Here, Tracy handles the test tubes, but in real life, Lamarr was the woman for the job. Though she had no formal training or credentials, she always had an aptitude for science, and in Europe she’d been privy to her first husband’s frequent meetings with engineers and businessmen. When she became a movie star in America, she set up an inventing table in her home, where she worked on projects that interested her.
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Flying HighLamarr briefly dated the film producer and airplane designer Howard Hughes, an accomplished tinkerer himself, who encouraged her scientific work. Hughes arranged for a smaller version of Lamarr’s home inventing table to be installed in her on-set trailer, and put some of his scientists at her disposal. She repaid him by suggesting a new, angled shape for his planes’ wings — a shape that she modeled on bird wings and fish fins.
Time Life Pictures/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesBig NameLamarr acted alongside Clark Gable in two films from 1940, “Boom Town” and “Comrade X” (pictured).
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Frequency HoppingDuring World War II, Lamarr began working with composer George Antheil on a “secret communication system” that would prevent Nazi radio jammers from interfering with the signals that guided Allied torpedoes to their targets. Instead of sending a signal along a single, easily jammable frequency, their system distributed it across multiple frequencies, using player-piano-like mechanisms in the transmitter and receiver to coordinate the “frequency hopping.” Lamarr and Antheil patented their invention in 1942, but the Navy declined to pursue it.
After the war, engineers at the electronics company Sylvania began experimenting with a similar system, which was implemented during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In lieu of the player-piano mechanism, Sylvania used transistors, a technology that was unavailable to Lamarr and Antheil in the early 1940s. Still, their research on frequency hopping helped lay the groundwork for the spread-spectrum technologies that gave us cellular phones, WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveStaying BusyIn 1941, as she and Antheil were hard at work on their frequency-hopping system, Lamarr appeared in three films, two of them with Jimmy Stewart — “Come Live With Me” (pictured) and “Ziegfeld Girl.”New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty ImagesThe Seven-Million Dollar WomanAs World War II dragged on, Lamarr found other ways to support the military effort. In 1942, having been rebuffed by the Navy, Lamarr began selling war bonds. In a single day in September, appearing at two separate benefits, she sold more than $7 million worth (more than $100 million in today’s money).
Silver Screen Collection/Getty ImagesDelilahIn 1949, Lamarr co-starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah,” the highest-grossing film of the year. The role may have been the high point of Lamarr’s acting career, but it marked the beginning of a fairly steep decline: having acted in 19 films since 1938, she would only make another six before retiring in 1958.Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesNot Fade AwayLamarr received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, but life after stardom was challenging. Having been issued the standard studio regimen of uppers and downers, she'd become dependent on drugs. And having been valued for years for her looks, she "became obsessed with plastic surgery". She was arrested twice for shoplifting, in 1966 and 1991.
But science provided at least one bright spot. In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation honored Lamarr and Antheil with its Pioneer Award. Three years before her death and 45 years after she and Antheil patented their frequency-hopping system, Lamarr finally got a measure of the recognition she deserved.
Clarence Sinclair Bull/Getty ImagesFor more on Hedy Lamarr, catch “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” when it airs on PBS in May.