Lives Behind the Legends: Hedy Lamarr – The Beautiful Inventor
Hedy Lamarr is known as one of the most beautiful actresses to come out of classic Hollywood. She was so alluring, that the looks of animated characters such as Snow White and Catwoman were inspired by her. But Hedy just might be the ultimate example of the old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. She wasn’t just a glamorous classic Hollywood actress, she was also a bright and talented inventor whose greatest invention still impacts our lives today. It’s almost too much to fathom; few people are as beautiful as her, even less achieve her level of fame and she was a talented inventor as well. Her life story is a compelling one, with her extraordinary beauty working both for and against her. It’s safe to say that Hedy was a unique and inspiring individual who should be known around the world. But the average person doesn’t realize that their Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were made possible by a classic Hollywood actress named Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy Lamarr came from a privileged background. As an only child of wealthy parents, she had everything she wanted while growing up in Vienna. Her parents stimulated her development in every way: she had ballet and piano lessons, was taught multiple languages, and played several sports. Hedy was a creative and inquisitive little girl. Although she grew up in a time when girls were seen and not heard, her parents encouraged her to think for herself. Her father would answer all of her questions and explain to her how things like paper presses and streetcars worked. She soaked knowledge up like a sponge and would take apart her music box to see how it worked and put it back together herself. This was only one of her many hobbies. She was fascinated by stories and the stage and would act out fairytales in front of her patient parents. As she grew into a teenager, the beautiful Hedy was praised more and more for her looks. She foresaw an opportunity and she dropped out of school at 16 to pursue acting. The ambitious Hedy quickly found success with the controversial film Ecstasy (1933), in which she appeared naked and simulated an orgasm.
As a beautiful, young starlet Hedy had plenty of suitors. One of them was Fritz Mandl, the rich chairman of a leading weapon factory. They were married when Hedy was 19. She enjoyed the luxurious life they led at first, but quickly grew bored. Hedy liked listening to conversations Mandl had about the workings of his products but wasn’t allowed to participate. She had given up her career and was now nothing more than a trophy wife. More worryingly, was that Fritz was insanely jealous and possessive. Hedy was not allowed to leave the house without him and she became a prisoner in her marriage. Here, her inventiveness came in handy. She had attempted to flee before, but he had intercepted her. So she concocted a plan: she hired a maid that looked like her, put a sleeping pill in her tea, switched their outfits, and left.
She fled to England and subsequently followed MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer on a ship that headed towards America. Her ambition hadn’t waned and Hedy was ready to get back to work. Hedy knew what she was doing when she wore the last designer gown she owned and walked into the ship’s restaurant. All heads turned towards her and Mayer offered her a contract then and there. Once again, her looks and determination had gotten her ahead in life – a fact that Hedy was all too aware of. When they arrived in Hollywood, Mayer promoted his new star as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. The film Algiers (1938) proved to be her big break and the studio made her star in film-after-film. There was one thing Mayer had not counted on, though: Hedy was so much more than just beautiful. She was smart and ambitious and she knew that they were not giving her quality films to star in. They quarreled often and he quickly labeled her as ‘difficult’.
Hedy’s attention shifted when World War II began. She was heartbroken as she watched her beloved Europe suffer. Hedy still had an inventive mind and she had started writing ideas for inventions in her notebook. Her marriage to Mandl had given her a particularly keen insight into weaponry. As she watched World War II unfold from across the Atlantic, she knew she could put her talents to good use. At the time, a big problem was jammed torpedoes – the Nazis would jam their adversary’s torpedo, switch its direction and let it land onto ships filled with scared World War II evacuees. This hit home for Hedy, who was trying to get her mother safely out of Europe. She came up with an ingenious idea: instead of having the radio guidance transmitter and the torpedo’s receiver fixed on one frequency, let it ‘hop’ to different frequencies. They would jump simultaneously from frequency to frequency, making it impossible for the enemy to locate and block a message before it had moved to another frequency. Hedy knew this was a good idea, but she needed a partner to make it work. She found composer and fellow inventor George Antheil – he immediately saw the genius in Hedy’s idea and used his skills with pianos to good use. He used a player-piano roll to randomly change the signal sent between the control center and the torpedo. A player-piano mechanism, which he had earlier used to score his Ballet Mécanique (1924), controlled the frequency-hopping sequence. Their invention is known as “frequency hopping”.
The two worked on the idea for several months. Hedy later remembered sitting on her living room rug with George and laying matches on the rug to simulate the wiring. Finally, they sent their idea to the National Inventions Council, a new organization for inventions that helped with the military defense during the war. The Council liked what they saw and suggested that they file a patent. Their patent was granted on 11th August 1941 as a ‘Secret Communication System’. The highly critical members of the National Inventions Council were excited about the invention, but some work needed to be done to make it viable. This took a long time and Hedy became restless. While shooting films like Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Come Live With Me (1941), she was still coming up with inventions.
She would sit on her floor working out ideas with Antheil or write furiously in her notebook full of ideas until late at night. Notorious businessman and engineer Howard Hughes recognized Hedy’s intelligence and potential. He told her that she could use his equipment and staff whenever she wanted. She tried out multiple inventions. One of them was a cube that would turn into a soft drink when adding water. She perfected it, before realizing that water had different qualities in every city, so it wouldn’t work. Hedy had more success when redesigning the wing shape for Hughes’ airplanes. She felt that they were too slow, so she invented a more aerodynamic shape based on fish and birds.
News of the Secret Communication System spread when The New York Times printed an article with the headline: ‘Hedy Lamarr Inventor – Actress Devises ‘Red-Hot’ Apparatus For Use In Defense’. It remarked that the invention was so vital that the government refused to give them any details. The Los Angeles Times picked up the story and added that 30,000 inventions had been submitted to the National Inventions Council, only 100 had been accepted and only half a dozen were considered ‘red-hot’. Though there was obvious excitement surrounding the invention, the government took its time in approving it.
By now, America was at war as well and Hedy wanted nothing more than to help. She had many more ideas for inventions to be used for defense and offered her services to the government. She later said: “I could feel there were more important things in the world at that time than motion pictures.” Despite her ‘red-hot’ invention, the government still refused to see her as more than just a beautiful actress. They advised her to help the war effort by selling bonds, like many of her peers were doing. Disappointed but determined to help in any way she could, Hedy went on tour to sell war bonds. She would go on to sell about $25 million, which would be $343 million today. Although she was proud of that accomplishment, she knew she could help the war effort much more with the Secret Communication System. By now, the government had finally approved it and had given it to the navy.
Eventually, the devastating news came: the navy deemed it too difficult to implement. Even though Antheil had worked hard to make the system as small as a wristwatch, his biggest inspiration became its downfall. As soon as the navy officers read about the piano mechanism they said: ‘What do you wanna do, put a player piano in a torpedo?’. They threw the patent aside and it was shelved for almost two decades.
In the meantime, Hedy struggled with her superficial image. In real life, Hedy never liked glamour. She lived in a farmhouse, wore simple clothes, and little to no make-up.
She famously stated that “any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid“. Still, big boss Louis B. Mayer only gave her parts in films like White Cargo (1942), in which she played the exotic sexual interest of the protagonist. Once her studio contract was over, she set out to produce her own films. Taking the reign suited her and she was one of the first actresses to do so. The first few films did reasonably well and she decided to create her own epic, based on the success of her earlier film Samson and Delilah (1949). The Loves of Three Queens was about three great women in history and how their beauty got in the way of love. Hedy gave it her all, poured her own money into it, and played all three women. Unfortunately, she could not find a studio to distribute the movie and she lost her money.
By the ’60s, her career was virtually non-existent and she turned to plastic surgery. Although she hated that her looks had gotten in the way of people taking her seriously, she secretly felt that it was the only reason people were interested in her at all. She was well aware of the part her looks had played in her success in Hollywood in the past and she needed work. Even in the plastic surgeon’s office, Hedy’s inventive mind was an asset. She suggested different techniques to tighten the skin and let the surgeon try them out on her. They worked wonders and became commonplace in Hollywood.
In 1969, Hedy went on a quest to find out what happened to her Secret Communication System. She found out that it had been used during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. All of America’s navy ships had been equipped with her and Antheil’s invention for missile-guided torpedoes. At this point, Hedy was living off of $300 a week. Since her patent had been used so successfully, she asked for compensation. She was told the patent had conveniently expired just before it was used. Hedy knew this wasn’t true and that they had to have worked on the patent for the last few years, but there was nothing she could do. In years to come, evidence would arise, but by then it was too late to sue. In the following decades, her invention would be used to create cell phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. In these cases, there were no ‘enemies’ trying to intercept the signal, but frequency hopping allows users to communicate simultaneously without interference. If a signal fails or is obstructed the connection doesn’t just stop, it ‘hops’ to another frequency.
While her invention was changing the world, Hedy struggled. During her Hollywood heyday, the studio had kept her on a regular diet of uppers and downers. A regular practice to keep their biggest stars on a tight schedule. Later on, she became the victim of the infamous ‘Dr. Feelgood’ whose vitamin shots were actually filled with methamphetamine. This caused her to behave more and more erratically. She lost her last film role, in Picture Mommy Dead (1966), due to a shoplifting scandal in 1965. Her past came back to haunt her as well. She wrote her autobiography with the help of two ghostwriters who took their liberty with the truth. Hedy was shocked to find the book rife with sexual anecdotes. They named the book ‘Ecstasy’, after the controversial movie that made her famous. Despite her lawsuit, or maybe because of it, the book became a bestseller.
As her life unraveled, Hedy tried to hold onto the one thing that had never failed her: her beauty. She was obsessed with plastic surgery, went too far, and ultimately became a caricature of her former self. The looks people once raved about were now mocked. Hedy started living in seclusion, only seeing a handful of friends who lived nearby. Over the years, she had six unsuccessful marriages and two children. But even her children and grandchildren could not convince her to see them in real life, She would only speak to them over the phone and she sent her grandchildren signed pictures from her Hollywood days.
Hedy would keep inventing until her death in 2000. In her final years, she invented a fluorescent dog collar, modifications for the supersonic Concorde airliner, and a new kind of stoplight. Inventor Carmelo ‘Nino’ Amarena spoke to her in 1997 and later recalled: “We talked like two engineers on a hot project. I never felt I was talking to a movie star, but to a fellow inventor.”
In May 1990, Forbes magazine printed an interview with Hedy which mentioned her invention and how much it had affected society. It was the first time since the early 1940’s that the mainstream press spoke of it. The press picked up the story and people in science took notice. In the late 90’s she received in short succession: the Millstar Award from Lockheed, the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, the Electronic Frontier Foundations Award, the Chariot Award of the Inventors Club of America, and the Viktor Kaplan Medal from Austria. Hedy, by now in her eighties, let her son pick up the awards. He passed along the message that she hoped her invention would do good and that she was happy it was not made in vain.
All in all, her invention is now worth around $30 billion. Hedy never received any of it and spent her final days in a modest apartment in Miami. Still, the recognition her invention received meant a lot to her. Or as she said to her son: “It’s about time!“.
Hedy’s beauty was both a gift and a curse. Without it, she wouldn’t have been a successful movie star in Hollywood’s golden age. Yet, it made her a commodity to be used and it kept people from seeing what was underneath. Really, it was their loss: her inventive mind was extraordinary. Scientists today have pointed out how amazing it is that someone without an education in the field had such a keen understanding of the inner workings of science. You can’t help but wonder what Hedy could have accomplished if only more people had taken her seriously. It’s a testament to her determination and strength of character that even with very few people believing in her abilities, she managed to create an invention that has changed the world in so many ways. How different would our lives be without cell phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS?
But while we all know names like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, Hedy Lamarr is not known to many people other than classic Hollywood fans and interested scientists. Thankfully, more and more people and organizations are trying to give Hedy the credit she so deserves. Google did a ‘Google Doodle’ of her on her 101st birthday, actress Susan Sarandon produced the documentary Bombshell about Hedy and her invention and Germany chose her birthday as their Inventors Day. With STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields trying to get more girls involved, Hedy would be their perfect poster woman. Her story is inspiring and shows that you don’t have to be one thing or another. Hedy was smart ánd beautiful, inventive and creative, ambitious, and an idealist.
Forget money, fame, and recognition, what she really hoped was that her invention would make the world a better place. So if you’re reading this on your phone or on the computer through Wi-Fi, give Hedy a little thanks. It wouldn’t be possible without her.
The sources for this article are Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (documentary), Smithsonianmag.com and Electronics-notes.com.
— Arancha van der Veen for Classic Movie Hub
Arancha has been fascinated with Classic Hollywood and its stars for years. Her main area of expertise is the behind-the-scenes stories, though she’s pretty sure she could beat you at movie trivia night too. Her website, Classic Hollywood Central, is about everything Classic Hollywood, from actors’ life stories and movie facts to Classic Hollywood myths. You can follow her on Twitter at @ClassicHC.