Hedy Lamarr: Star that Invented Wi-Fi

“The brains are more interesting than the looks of people I think”

Hedy_lamarr_-_1940

Hedy Lamarr was quoted as saying, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” (1) People have said that she was the most beautiful woman to ever star in the movies with her smoldering, femme fatale appeal. The Austrian woman named Hedwig Kiesler (Hedy Lamarr’s real name), came to Hollywood and by 1938 became famous in the film “Algiers”. Though at that time she was the equivalent of the tambourine girl in a rock band in the 1960’s.  They called her ‘the girl’. One gossip writer referred to her as the ‘Ecstasy Girl’, because of her first film in Europe.

There was another side to Hedy Lamarr, she could invent things. During WWII she dated and worked with Howard Hughes. The world considered their nightly dates the drama of Hollywood gossip columns in 1938, but Hedy’s talent for inventing things came in handy. Hughes wanted to make the fastest planes in the world. When Hedy looked at the square wings of the planes, she knew they were shaped wrong, the planes were too slow. (2) So, she got pictures of fish and birds, fast birds and kept sketching and sketching until the wings were diagonal from the plane aimed backward instead of straight out to the side. She used the bird wings, and the fish tails to help design a faster plane. J

She also wanted to invent a tablet (a cube) that would fizz up into Cola, during WWII when rationing was an issue.  Hedy said in interviews that inventing things came easy to her and it was her hobby. She set up a fully stocked work table for her inventions at home. I watched a PBS interview with Alexandra Dean, director of ‘Bombshell’: the Hedy Lamarr Story. Thompson said when interviewing scientists, she was shocked by their comments about Lamarr. Many of the scientists believed she was a spy for the Germans, and brought the technology over… The scientists asked, “Doesn’t that make more sense than her actually being able to create those inventions?”

Hedy was married at 18 to Fritz Mandl, an Austrian military arms merchant and munitions manufacturer. Hedy often went to meetings with Mandl while he conferred with scientists which was her education into applied science and nurtured her talent in science. She quit school at 15 to do movies and that was the entire extent of Lamarr’s formal education. (3) Mandl had ties with fascist Mussolini and Hitler, who sometimes were guests at their castle, Schloss Schwarzenau. (4)

She left Austria to come to New York at in her early 20’s. One of the wonderful things I discovered about Hedy is that in the vein of Gertrude Stein, she had a “there, there”. She was incredibly smart, but also conscious as a human being. She said of her then husband Mandl, “I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife…. He was the absolute monarch in his marriage…. I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own.” (5)

Lamarr was also fleeing the Nazis. She could not get a ticket for Normandie, so she disguised her self as a governess accompanying a ticketed youth to gain passage to New York. She then mesmerized Louis B. Mayer with her beauty and he took her to Hollywood. According to a blog I read by Martin Munkacsi, Mayer thought Hedy would be the next Greta Garbo. Lamarr was a stunning on-screen star, but Mayer thought she never fully developed the acting skills he saw for her. She did become a major star. (6) In true Hollywood style, she worked vigorously until she was in her mid-thirties. When she tried to branch out in roles found it very difficult.

Lamarr brought her love of inventing with her to Hollywood, as I said previously she had a place in her home with a table for her inventions. She starred in movies with greats like Spencer Tracey, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, and it was through them she met composer George Antheil. German born Antheil had experimented with the automated control of musical instruments.  Their talks went to communications, and the topic turned to radio controlled torpedoes a WWII weapon that could be jammed by broadcasting interference.

Lamarr utilized information she garnered while attending meetings with scientists and husband Fritz Mandl. Hedy and Antheil began collaborating on a technique of frequency hopping, rapidly switching among random synchronized frequencies. This prevented the Germans from jamming the signals. Their plan was to use a piano roll to randomly switch signal from control center to the torpedo in short bursts among 88 frequencies (like the 88 piano keys). It was called the “Secret Communications System” and was granted a US Patent No. 2,292,387. The technique was not used by the military. (7)

The patent lapsed, and the U.S. Military used the invention for their ships during the blockade of Cuba in 1962. Lamarr never got credit for it until much later. The technology is still used in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It is not known how many inventions were created by Lamarr.

The attention of her later life was taken up with bad plastic surgery, and an accusation of shoplifting. She was a recluse in her later years, doing most of her socializing on the telephone. A quote from Martin Munkacsi’s blog I think comes from the documentary ‘Bombshell’ stating she left messages on her children’s answering machines: Lamarr said: “People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered… The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway… Build anyway.” (9)

Because she was a movie star, what was written most about Lamarr were her marriages and divorces, her plastic surgery and the accusation of shoplifting. She felt as if she were treated like a joke according to recording I listened to on You Tube (No. 2 in credits).  Her brilliant mind was never addressed, she never took credit for her invention. In 1997 She and Antheil were recognized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award for lifetime achievements that have significantly contributed to society. Lamarr passed away on January 19, 2000. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are going strong. The internet, based on her technology has revolutionized the world.

  1. Dargas, Manohla, Review: “Bombshell” Tells the Amazing Story of Hedy Lamarr, The Star and the Inventor, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/23/movies/bombshell-the-hedy-lamarr-story-review-.html
  2. The Brilliant Mind of Hollywood Legend Hedy Lamarr, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rlXHNeQD-s
  3. Happy 100th birthday, Hedy Lamarr, movie star who paved way for Wi-Fi”. CNET. Retrieved May 26,2015.
  4. Hedy Lamarr, https://myvintagephotos.com/product/hedy-lamarr/
  5. Rhodes, Richard. Hedy’s Folly (New York: Doubleday, 2011): 28-29
  6. Hedy Lamarr by Martin Munkacsi, https://fansinaflashbulb.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/hedy-lamarr-by-martin-munkacsi/
  7. Ibid
  8. ‘Bombshell’ Show that Hedy was no Joke, https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2018/02/28/bombshell-shows-that-hedy-lamarr-was-joke/2CZ6fJWIsXXU20KqXLnfMK/story.html
  9. ibid
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