Whether you’ve heard of Hedy Lamarr or not, you’ve been using her revolutionary brainchild for some time now. Her life was filled with glamour, cameras, and turmoil. The Austrian-born actress and inventor was at one time known and seen as one of the most beautiful women to grace the “Golden Age” of Hollywood’s silver screens. She could be seen acting with some of the era’s most celebrated actors like Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart, according to her official website. Lamarr could be seen in films like Algiers, The Female Animal, Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, White Cargo, and the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. Despite making a name for herself in film, her real contribution — which she didn’t receive due and timely credit for — would go on to revolutionize communication and technology for years to come.
Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria, and was an only child to a father who would inspire her to explore the world through science and a mother who would introduce her to the arts (via National Women’s History Museum). By the age of 16, Lamarr’s beauty had attracted the eye of director Max Reinhardt, something that led to her first role in the German film Geld auf der Straβe (which translates to ‘Money on the Street’). But, it wasn’t until her role in the sexually charged Czech film Exstase (which translates to ‘Ecstasy’) that went on to garner her much attention (via Hedy Lamarr).
Sometime after that, she went on to marry the first of her six husbands, Fritz Mandl, a munitions dealer who had ties to the Nazi party. Lamarr was said to be incredibly unhappy and ended up fleeing to London — a decision that would catapult her life into a different sphere. According to NWHM, Lamarr had a chance meeting with Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios and the rest was history. Once in the United States, Lamarr dated entrepreneur and pilot Howard Hughes and her interest for innovation and science began to bloom once again (something she had put on the back burner from her childhood with her father). While with Hughes, Lamarr proved herself to be every bit the genius that she knew she was — developing a new design for airplane wings inspired by fish and birds.
Her contribution to the world
Her time with Hughes was just the beginning, things really began to change for her when she met her eventual co-inventor George Antheil. Together with Antheil, she went on to create an electric device that would work against the German systems that were jamming radio signals for the Americans during World War II (via Britannica). The NWHM reports that the system was said to assist torpedos in being able to find their intended target by allowing the US to “hop” between signal channels.
They were awarded a patent and decided to pitch it to the US Navy, who declined to use it. Unfortunately, Lamarr was never fully given credit for her invention that would later set the ground work for the development of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS technologies. According to NWHM, it wasn’t until 1997 that both Lamarr and Antheil both received awards recognizing their invention. In 2014, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, but unfortunately she had passed away in 2000, so she never got to enjoy this win.