Hedy Lamarr - A Beautiful Mind

Famed for her beauty, Hedy Lamarr was once described as one of the greatest actresses of all time.[1] Her name is synonymous with the golden age of Hollywood, and yet her inventive mind laid the foundations for modern WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth which have revolutionised the world of communication. The Viennese-born actress had a challenging life and her innovative achievement went unrecognised for a long time. Nevertheless, over previous decades the achievements of women have received renewed attention, and the work of Hedy Lamarr is finally receiving the attention and celebration she deserved.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (later known as Hedy Lamarr) was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. Her father, Emil Kiesler, was a Galacian-Jewish Bank director whilst her mother, Trude Kiesler, was a Hungarian- Jewish Pianist from Budapest who converted to Catholicism. From a young age, Lamarr was fascinated by theatre and film, and at age 12 she won a beauty contest in Vienna. Her scientific mind was fueled by her father who used to take her for walks and explain how different technology functioned. [2] Lamarr took acting classes and had roles in various small films in Germany, however, her big break was Ecstasy (1933) during which 18-year-old Lamarr had various brief nude scenes. The film became notorious for showing closeups of Lamarr's face in the throws of orgasm, which Lamarr has suggested were captured without her knowledge by the director. [3] Lamarr was as a result dismayed and disillusioned about other roles, nevertheless, the film won awards in Europe. It was, however, considered too sexual in America and was banned there and in Germany. [4]

During her early career, she met Friedrich Mandl, a military arms merchant who was obsessed with getting to know Lamarr. The young actress became equally enamoured, perhaps in part due to Mandl's wealth. Her parents were far more disapproving as Mandl had links with both Benito Mussolini and, later, Adolf Hitler. [3] The couple were married on August 10, 1933, when Lamarr was just 18 and Mandl was 33. In her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, Lamarr described Mandl as an extremely controlling husband who prevented her from pursuing her acting career. Lamarr suggested that she was a prisoner in the couple's castle home, Schloss Schwarzenau. [4] Their castle was host to many lavish parties which were attended by both the German and Italian dictators. Lamarr also encouraged her husband to conferences with scientists and other professionals involved with military technology further introducing her to applied science thus nurturing her latent scientific talents. In 1937, she fled to Paris, separating from her husband and country. [5]

Later in 1937, Lamarr arrived in London. It was there that she met Louis B Mayer, the head of MGM who was in Europe scouting for talent. [6] Initially, Lamarr turned down a contract offer of $125 a week. However, she booked onto the same New York-bound liner as Mayer and managed to impress him enough to secure a $500 a week contract instead. Mayer persuaded Lamarr to change her name in order to distance herself from 'the Ecstasy lady.' [5] The choice of 'Lamarr' was in homage to film star Barbara La Marr who was greatly admired by Mayer's wife. In 1938, Lamarr was taken to Hollywood and promoted as the 'world's most beautiful woman.' [7] Mayer loaned Lamarr to Walter Wanger for the film Algiers (1938). Lamarr was cast in the lead role and supposedly her face took people's breath away. [8] Consequently, Lamarr became typecasted as a glamorous seductress and was cast in multiple films of varying success such as Lady Of The Tropics (1939) where Lamarr played a mixed-race seductress in Saigon, I Take This Woman (1940) which proved to be a flop, and Boom Town (1940) in which Lamarr teamed up with Clark Gable proved to be a major success and made $5 million in the box office. [9] In 1940, Lamarr again teamed up with Clarke Gable for Comrade X. Her final film with MGM was Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945), following which her career began to decline.

Following the Second World War, Lamarr attempted to produce her own films but she had little success. In 1950 she played Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah which became the highest-grossing film of 1950, and won two Oscars. From then on, her acting career went into decline. Her final film was The Female Animal released in 1958. She had been signed to act in a 1966 film called Picture Mummy Dead but she was replaced in the film when she collapsed from nervous exhaustion. [10]

Although Lamarr was a successful actress, her career did not constitute her sole talent and Lamarr had hobbies, built in part on her experiences in earlier life. Having no formal scientific training, Lamarr was mostly self-taught but that did not stop her from working on various hobbies and inventions. As well as inventing an improved stop light, Lamarr created a tablet which could be used to create carbonated drinks. The drink was, however, unsuccessful and Lamarr herself admitted it tasted like Alka-Seltzer. [11] Very few individuals were privy to Lamarr's inventive streak, Howard Hughes was one of them. An aviation tycoon, Hughes had experience Lamarr's aptitude for invention when she suggested he change the design of his aeroplanes to a more streamlined design, as Lamarr felt the present design was too boxy. She based her suggestion on images of a range of fast birds and fish, using these as inspiration to improve the aircraft. Whilst Lamarr and Hughes dated, he was supportive of her hobbies. He even allowed her to utilise his team of scientists and engineers who were instructed to do or make anything she asked for. [12]

During the second world war, Lamarr had been eager to support the war effort but had been resigned to using her celebrity in order to sell war bonds. However, she learned that radio-controlled torpedoes, which were only recently introduced to the navy, could be easily jammed and set off course. [13] In response, Lamarr worked with composer and pianist George Antheil to develop a device which could create a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed. [14] In 1942, the invention was granted a patent under Lamarr's married name 'Hedy Kiesler Markey' alongside Antheil. However, the US Navy were not receptive to considering inventions from outside the military thus the invention was not initially utilised. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, an updated version of the design finally appeared on Navy ships. [15] It is this technology, invented by Hedy Lamarr, which formed the foundation for frequency-hopping developments such as WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS.

The patent for Lamarr and Antheil's 'Secret communication system'

Over the course of her life, Lamarr was married and divorced six times. She was often lonely and homesick and avoided beaches and staring crowds. Being the 'most beautiful woman in the world' came at a price. She became a naturalised citizen of the USA in 1953, aged 38 and, following her final divorce in 1965 she spent the remaining 35 years of her life unmarried. In her later years, Lamarr became very secluded and, although she often spent 6 or 7 hours a day on the phone with her friends and 3 children, she very rarely spent time with people in person. On January 19, 2000, Lamarr passed away in Florida from Heart disease. An unremarkable end for a truly remarkable woman.

Hedy Lamarr (left) and George Antheil (right) worked together to develop frequency-hopping technology

Lamarr's theatrical achievements received much acclaim during her lifetime. Most notably, in 1960 she was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. However, her accomplishments as an inventor were slower to receive the recognition she deserved. Nevertheless, in 1997, three years before her death, Lamarr and Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award. [16] Both awards commemorate individuals whose lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences, business or invention have contributed significantly to society. It took time for the full potential of Lamarr's invention to be recognised and appreciated. [17] Furthermore, in 2014, Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and in 2019, an asteroid was named after her. Although for much of her life Lamarr was celebrated for her beauty, it took time for society to realise that her greatest contribution came from her beautiful mind. Her legacy will live on through frequency-hopping technology for years to come.

Hedy Lamarr - A beautiful mind


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  3. "A Candid Portrait of Hedy Lamarr", Liberty magazine, December 1938, pp. 18-19
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