Hedy Lamarr was an actress, icon, and inventor during the 20th Century, and has one of the most fascinating life stories of any Hollywood star.
Born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1913, Hedy Lamarr showed an interest in acting from a young age and won a beauty contest at age 12. During her childhood she would go on long walks in the woods with her father, who would explain how various machines worked. This is where her love of science began.
Her big break came in 1933, when she starred in the now infamous Ecstasy. The film was publicly denounced by the Pope and banned in the US.
From there Hedy Lamarr went on to act on the stage, drawing the attention of the third richest man in Austria, an arms-dealer by the name of Friedrich Mandl. They married in August of 1933. He was significantly older, and a controlling husband.
Lamarr found this suffocating, and would eventually flee their castle home, Schloss Schwarzenau. Accounts vary of how she escaped: some say she disguised herself as a maid, others say she persuaded her husband to let her wear every piece of jewellery she owned to a dinner party, where she later slipped away, funding her escape to London by selling it all.
She would arrive in Hollywood in 1938, where she would go on to promoted as ‘the world’s most beautiful woman.’ Her screen named was taken from silent film star Barbara La Marr in an effort to distance herself from her real identity and her Ecstasy reputation. Her Hollywood debut was in Algiers. Allegedly she was so beautiful that when she first appeared on screen, audiences audibly gasped.
Despite having no formal engineering training, Lamarr took up, in her words, ‘tinkering’ to stave off boredom while acting. She had a laboratory at her home, and in her trailer on set.
In the 1940s Lamarr would work with composer George Antheil to support the Allied war effort. Concerned about the safety of her Jewish mother in Vienna, she was aware that Nazi submarines were engaged in destroying ships carrying refugees to America. She wanted to give the Allies the upper hand, and so had the concept of ships being able to communicate with their torpedoes.
The two of them worked to develop a torpedo guidance system that wasn’t vulnerable to electronic jamming and discovered the basic principle for the ‘spread spectrum’ or ‘frequency hopping’ technology that would later be adapted into Bluetooth and wi-fi technology. It was a secure radio signal going from ship to torpedo that would change frequencies according to a complicated code, so German soldiers and scientists couldn’t jam the signal.
The patent was granted in 1942; over 60 years before wi-fi would be widely adopted around the world. It wasn’t put into place in World War II; in fact, Lamarr was told she’d be better off selling war bonds. The technology first appeared on US Navy ships in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.
In 1997 she won the Electric Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and was the first woman to win the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, called the ‘Oscars of Inventing’, given to those whose achievements significantly contribute to society. In 2014 she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Sadly, to this day, neither Hedy Lamarr nor her estate have seen any money from the multi-billion-dollar industry her idea paved the way for. Whilst it may not be universally acknowledged that Hedy Lamarr invented the Internet, the U.S. military has publicly acknowledged her frequency-hopping patent and contribution to technology.
Learn more about other historical figures in engineering, like Leonardo Da Vinci.
The coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted, and in many cases sadly decimated, thousands of companies across indus...Read full blog