The Epitome of Beauty and Brains
Every invention has a beginning.
Today, when we think of an excellent idea, we open our laptop, search the internet, possibly using our Wi-Fi, and have the freedom to pursue it regardless of gender, status in life, nationality, and race.
What if we don’t have Wi-Fi?
What if immigration were not allowed?
What if women were not given the freedom to become competent?
What if your status in life contained you in a box?
The 1940s may not have had the answer, but if you're reading this article on a smartphone or computer hooked up to Wi-Fi, the answer is Hedy Lamarr.
Vastly overlooked because of her ethereal beauty, Hedy Lamarr’s innovative and curious mind gave more to the world than any other single invention to this day.
Read on to learn why.
Early Life of Hedy Lamarr
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Lamarr's real name, was born on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria, the only child of a wealthy Jewish family.
Hedy Lamarr’s parents influenced her potential in many ways.
But what did Hedy Lamarr do as a child, and what was her early life like?
Her father, Emil Kiesler, a bank director and a curious man who inspired Lamarr to see the world with open eyes, lavished her with attention. Emil Kiesler sparked the interest within Hedy’s heart and the passion for invention.
As for Lamarr's mother, Gertrud "Trude" Kiesler, she was a concert pianist. Trude Kiesler enrolled Lamarr in ballet and piano lessons, introducing her to the world of entertainment.
Hedy Lamarr’s Education
As an Austrian, Hedy Lamarr did not approach her academics in a public setting, unlike Nikola Tesla who went to Imperial-Royal Technical College in Graz, Austria.
Being born during the generation of world wars, Hedy Lamarr was privately tutored from age 4.
When Lamarr was a child, she showed a keen interest in acting and was fascinated by theatre and movies. By the time Hedy was 10, she was a proficient pianist and dancer and could speak four languages.
She started to show great beauty at the age of 12 and won a beauty contest in Vienna. At 16, she enrolled at Max Reinhardt's drama school in Berlin.
Tech and Invention
Hedy Lamarr also began to associate invention with her father, who would take her out on walks, showing her how different technology used in society functioned while explaining the inner workings of various machines, such as the printing press or streetcars.
These conversations shaped Lamarr's thinking, and she could be found disassembling and reassembling her music box at the age of five to figure out how it worked.
European Film Career
Lamarr’s Early Work
Lamarr was studying acting in Vienna when she fabricated a note from her mother and went to Sascha-Film, where she was hired as a script girl. She acquired a position as an extra in Money on the Street (1930) and then a brief speaking part in Storm in a Water Glass (1931).
Producer Max Reinhardt cast her in The Weaker Sex, a play performed at the Theater in der Josefstadt. Reinhardt was so taken with her that he brought Lamarr back to Berlin with him.
Even though Lamarr was brought to Berlin, she never trained with Reinhardt and was never featured in any of his Berlin shows. Instead, she met Alexis Granowsky, a Russian theatrical producer who cast her in his directorial debut, The Trunks of Mr. O.F. (1931), starring Walter Abel and Peter Lorre.
Granowsky soon relocated to Paris, while Lamarr remained in Berlin and landed the lead role in Carl Boese's comedy No Money Needed (1932). Lamarr went on to star in the film that made her famous internationally.
At the age of 18, Lamarr was cast as the lead in Gustav Machat's film Ecstasy (Ekstase in German, Extase in Czech) in early 1933. Hedy Lamarr portrayed the neglected young wife of a jaded older man. She achieved both stardom and notoriety in the Czech film Extase, in which she briefly but tastefully appeared naked.
The film became celebrated and controversial for depicting Lamarr's face in the spasms of orgasm, as well as close-up and brief nude footage. Lamarr said she was "tricked" by the director and producer, who employed high-power telephoto lenses, although others involved with the film disputed her accusations.
Despite her disappointment and disillusion in taking on other roles, the film received worldwide attention after winning an award in Rome. It was considered an artistic work throughout Europe. Hedy Lamarr’s Ecstacy film was deemed too sexual in America and earned terrible publicity, particularly among women's groups. It was barred both in Germany and America.
Lamarr appeared in various theatrical productions, including a leading role in Sissy, a drama about Empress Elisabeth of Austria that was shown in Vienna. It received positive feedback from critics.
Admirers delivered roses to her dressing room and attempted to meet her backstage. She rejected most of them, including a more persistent man, Friedrich Mandl. He grew fixated on getting to know her.
Mandl was an Austrian military arms merchant and munitions manufacturer rumored to be Austria's third richest man. She was drawn to his charming and fascinating personality, in part because of his considerable financial wealth.
Her parents, both of Jewish descent, were opposed because of Mandl's ties to Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and, later, German F Hitler, but they were unable to stop the headstrong Lamarr.
Hedy Lamarr married Friedrich Mandl at the Karlskirche on August 10, 1933. Mandl was 33 years old and Lamarr was 18 years old. Hedy Lamarr's first husband, Mandl, was described as an extremely controlling husband in her autobiography Ecstasy and Me, who strongly objected to her simulated orgasm scene in Ecstasy and prevented her from pursuing her acting career. She claimed she was held as a virtual prisoner in Schloss Schwarzenau, their castle home.
Friedrich Mandl had close social and business ties to the Italian government, selling munitions to the country, and, like Hedy's father, had ties to the Nazi regime of Germany. According to Lamarr, the dictators of both countries attended lavish parties at the Mandl residence. Lamarr accompanied Mandl to business meetings, where he met with scientists and other military technology professionals. These conferences introduced her to the field of applied science and nurtured her latent scientific talent.
Hedy gained access to secret intelligence as Freidrich Mandl's wife. Listening to the men talking during dinner, she understood the type of military technology these men used, and thus her idea for the frequency hopping signal started to take seed.
When, eventually, Lamarr's marriage to Mandl became unbearable, she decided to separate herself from both her husband and Austria. Hedy wrote in her autobiography that she disguised herself as Lamarr’s maid and fled to Paris. Still, according to other accounts, she persuaded Mandl to let her wear all of her jewelry for a dinner party, then vanished. Hedy Lamarr writes about her marriage:
Louis B. Mayer and MGM
In 1937, Hedy Lamarr arrived in London and met the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, who was scouting talent in Europe.
The first offer she rejected was $125 per week, but Hedy Lamarr booked herself on the same ship as Louis Mayer and impressed him enough for a $500 weekly contract.
She was convinced by Mayer to change her name to Hedy Lamarr to distance herself from her real identity (and the reputation that accompanied her as "the Ecstasy Lady") after Mayer’s wife, who admired La Marr, suggested the name in homage to the beautiful silent movie star, Barbara La Marr.
As soon as he brought her to Hollywood in 1938, he promoted her as the most beautiful woman in the world.
Lamarr was lent to producer Walter Wanger by Mayer, and when she first appeared on the screen, everyone gasped, and Lamarr's beauty literally took one's breath away. Future Hollywood films would invariably portray her then as the archetypal glamorous seductress from an exotic origin.
Richard Rhodes, an author, describes her American cultural assimilation:
Hedy Lamarr’s off-screen life and personality were very different from her on-screen persona during those years. Hedy felt lonely and homesick most of the time. She could swim at her agent's pool, but she avoided beaches and crowds. Lamarr also wondered why anyone would want her autograph when she was asked for one. A habit of Lamarr's was to speak about herself in the third person.
Howard Sharpe, a writer, interviewed her and shared his positive thoughts:
In her quest to join the National Inventors Council, Lamarr reportedly learned that she could sell war bonds better using her celebrity status than by joining the NIC.
Hedy Lamarr worked with a sailor named Eddie Rhodes on a war bond selling campaign. At each Lamarr appearance, Rhodes was in the audience, and Hedy would summon him to the stage. She'd flirt with him briefly before asking the audience if Hedy should kiss him.
When the crowd said yes, Hedy replied that she would if enough people bought war bonds. After purchasing enough bonds, she would kiss Rhodes, and he would return to the audience and then proceed to the next rally.
Following Hedy Lamarr's departure from MGM in 1945, Hedy formed a production company with Jack Chertok and produced the thriller The Strange Woman (1946). It went over budget and made only marginal profits.
She and Chertok then co-wrote and directed Dishonored Lady (1947), another thriller starring Lamarr that also went over budget but failed commercially. Hedy Lamarr also tried a comedy with Robert Cummings, Let's Live a Little (1948).
In Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah, the highest-grossing film of 1950, Lamarr played Delilah, with Victor Mature as the Biblical strongman Samson. The film also won two Oscar Awards.
Lamarr returned to MGM for the flop A Lady Without a Passport (1950) with John Hodiak. Hedy's career soon declined. She traveled to Italy to appear and produce Loves of Three Queens (1954). Unfortunately, Hedy lacked the experience to make such an epic production a success, and Lamarr lost millions of dollars when she could not secure distribution for the film.
She played Joan of Arc in Irwin Allen's panned epic The Story of Mankind (1957) and appeared in episodes of Zane Grey Theatre ("Proud Woman") and Shower of Stars ("Cloak and Dagger"). Lamarr's last film was The Female Animal, a thriller in 1958.
Lamarr was cast in the 1966 film Picture Mommy Dead, but was dismissed after collapsing during filming due to nervous exhaustion. Actress Zsa Zsa Gabor assumed the role of Jessica Flagmore Shelley.
A Deeper Look into Hedy Lamarr's Inventions
Invention as a Hobby: Early Contributions
Hedy Lamarr is often heard saying that improving things comes naturally to her. Her mechanism of switching from entertainer to entertained is through inventing. Her mind was always teeming with infinite possibilities.
Despite having no formal training and being primarily self-taught, Lamarr spent her spare time tinkering with various hobbies and ideas, including a traffic stoplight and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink. The beverage was a failure; Lamarr herself described it as tasting like Alka-Seltzer.
She always loved to learn new things and improve existing ones by redesigning them, making them excellent.
Aviation tycoon Howard Hughes, one of Hedy's boyfriends, was astounded by her creativity and intelligence. He was among the few who respected this side of hers and decided to utilize her brilliant mind.
Hughes introduced her to his team of scientists to improve his airplanes. Lamarr worked wherever and whenever inspiration struck her. Whether from her movie set trailer, her home lab, or Howard Hugh's aviation lab, Lamarr was passionate about creating an economical and speedier airplane wing design for Howard Hughes.
After studying and analyzing the speediest birds and fish forms, she finally presented Hugh with the swept wing.
Invention as Passion: Frequency Hopping Communication System
In 1940, while attending a dinner party, Hedy met the self-proclaimed bad boy, the composer George Antheil. The two hit it off right away, and in their discussion, Lamarr confided to George how disturbed she was about the news of the tragic sinking of the SS City of Benares.
While the SS City of Benares was heading to safety from England to Canada, an enemy torpedo hit the ship. Out of the 90 people on board, 77 perished.
Hedy and George bonded. Soon after, they worked together to develop a wireless communication system that stopped enemies from blocking or jamming the signal that controlled the Allies' torpedoes.
Lamarr contributed to the concept of frequency hopping. At the same time, Antheil used his experience with Ballet Mécanique and sixteen-player pianos to devise a method of synchronizing the fast-changing radio frequencies foreseen by Lamarr. Their joint invention used a mechanism akin to piano player rolls to synchronize the progression between the 88 frequencies.
The invention was dubbed frequency hopping because the system caused radio waves from the transmitter and receiver to switch to a new frequency simultaneously.
What is Frequency Hopping?
Frequency hopping is the most basic version of a radio transmission technique known today as the spread-spectrum technique, which refers to any method that broadens a signal's frequency band. Radio stations typically broadcast on a single carrier frequency, making eavesdropping simple: you tune your radio to the correct frequency and receive the programming.
Frequency hopping, on the other hand, prevents transmission interception and decipherment by shifting the carrier frequency in a predetermined, usually pseudorandom manner—that is, in a way that appears random but is produced by a deterministic algorithm.
The message can be picked up by a receiver hopping around in time with the transmitter, but an eavesdropper tuned to a single frequency will only hear a blip as that bit of message flashes by. Frequency hopping is also relatively jam-free. If the frequencies are widely separated, any jamming signal will only interfere with a small portion of the message.
Hopping between frequencies made it impossible to detect and redirect incoming signals, causing an enemy torpedo to miss its target. Hedy Lamarr’s spread spectrum frequency hopping also prevented radio waves from being intercepted, allowing the Allies' torpedo to find its intended target.
Antheil was introduced to Samuel Stuart Mackeown, a Caltech professor of radio-electrical engineering, whom Lamarr hired for a year to develop the idea's functionality. Following its creation, Lamarr and Antheil sought a patent and military backing for the invention.
Lamarr also hired the Los Angeles law firm, Lyon & Lyon, to search for prior knowledge and draft the patent application. Hedy and George then applied for a patent on June 10, 1941, and it was granted under US Patent 2,292,387 on August 11, 1942.
However, neither the US Navy nor any other nation used radio-controlled torpedoes at the time, and electro-mechanical devices like these would be rendered obsolete by purely electronic controls.
And when the military finally took Lamarr and Antheil's idea and eventually used it. Lamarr desired to join the National Inventors Council. Still, NIC member Charles F. Kettering and others reportedly told her that she would make a more significant contribution to the war effort as a pinup than as an inventor, entertaining troops, pushing war bonds, and selling kisses. She agreed, wanting to help in any way she could, and raised $25 million.
Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997, as well as the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award. These awards are given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences, business, or invention fields have significantly contributed to society. Lamarr and Antheil were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 2014.
Hedy Lamarr has also appeared on the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel for her contribution to the invention.
Later Years and Seclusion
On April 10, 1953, Hedy Lamarr became a naturalized citizen of the United States at age 38. The Villa LaMarr ski resort in Aspen, Colorado, was designed and developed by Hedy Lamarr in the late 1950s, along with her then-husband W. Howard Lee.
The 1970s were a decade of increasing seclusion for Hedy Lamarr. She was proposed for various scripts, television commercials, and stage projects, but none piqued her interest.
Hedy Lamarr sued Warner Bros. for $10 million in 1974, claiming that the running parody of her name ("Hedley Lamarr") in Mel Brooks' comedy Blazing Saddles violated her right to privacy.
Brooks expressed his gratitude, and the studio reached an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum and an apology to Hedy Lamarr for almost using her name. According to Brooks, Lamarr "never got the joke." After her eyesight failed, Lamarr retired from public life in 1981 and settled in Miami Beach, Florida.
During the last decades of her life, Lamarr's only means of communication with the outside world was the telephone, even with her children and close friends. Despite talking on the phone for six to seven hours daily, she hardly saw anyone in person during her final years. The documentary Calling Hedy Lamarr, which featured her children Anthony Loder and Denise Loder-DeLuca, was released in 2004.
When James Lamarr Loder was 12 years old, Lamarr became estranged from him. A sudden end to their relationship led him to move in with another family. There was no communication between them for almost 50 years. James Loder was excluded from Lamarr's will and sued for control of the US$3.3 million estate she left in 2000. In the end, he settled for US$50,000.
Hedy Lamarr’s Death
Hedy Lamarr died of heart disease on January 19, 2000, in Casselberry, Florida, at age 85. Following her final wishes, her son, Anthony Loder, scattered her ashes in Austria's Vienna Woods.
A memorial to Lamarr was unveiled in Vienna's Central Cemetery in 2014.
Hedy Lamarr Legacy
Lamarr’s Awards and Tributes
In 1960, Hedy Lamarr received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1939, the Philadelphia Record film critic named Lamarr the most promising new actress of 1938 in a poll of area voters. Hedy Lamarr was named the year's 10th best actress by British moviegoers for her performance in Samson and Delilah in 1951.
When the British drag queen Foo Foo Lamarr (born Francis Pearson, 1937-2003) began his performing career, Foo Foo Lamarr took inspiration from the actress of his surname.
In 1997, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award together, and Lamarr was also the first woman to receive the Invention Convention's BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, known as the Oscars of Inventing. The Austrian Association of Patent Holders and Inventors awarded Hedy Lamarr the Viktor Kaplan Medal the following year.
The Hedy-Lamarr-Weg, named after the actress, was established in Vienna Meidling (12th District) in 2006.
The IQOQI installed a quantum telescope on the roof of the University of Vienna in 2013, which was named after her in 2014.
Although she didn't receive the recognition she deserved for her innovative mind while she was alive, her legacy has shifted in recent years. Hedy Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 2014 for frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology.
The same year, Anthony Loder's request that his mother's remaining ashes be buried in an honorary grave in Vienna was granted. Lamarr’s urn was buried on November 7 at the Vienna Central Cemetery in Group 33 G, Tomb No. 80, not far from the presidential tomb.
Google honored her with a doodle on her 101st birthday, November 9, 2015. Hedy Lamarr was also given an asteroid named after her on August 27, 2019: 32730 Lamarr.
Another brilliant inventor of the same generation, Elijah McCoy, has also been featured by Google Doodle in 2022.
In Popular Culture: Hedy Lamarr
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarf is famous for being the first animated film with a human impersonation inside. This film is also the first animation to feature a princess in their now long list of Disney Princesses. But it’s 1937 and one of the most difficult decisions and roadblocks the studio had to make with this film was how to represent Snow White.
Walt envisioned her as a gentle, feminine, and soft-featured girl next door. Snow White went through phases of being blonde, ginger, and wearing diverse styles and colors of dresses. As the lead animator for Snow White, Grim Natwick transformed her into a black-haired, fair-skinned, young girl with red, white, yellow, and blue clothing.
“Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
Just as Hedy Lamarr built the blueprint of today’s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS, it is no head scratcher to realize that Snow White was inspired by the most beautiful woman in the world.
Three women, including Hedy Lamarr, made the Snow White we love today. Hedy Lamarr’s translucent skin, ebony hair, and beautiful red lips brought Snow White’s basic idea to life.
You can see traces of Hedy Lamarr’s facial appearance in Snow White too, along with influences from Adriana Caselotti’s looks. Marge Champion, a young American dancer and actress, was hired to be Snow White’s live action reference model. Adraiana Caselotti lent her voice to the iconic Snow White vocals we know.
The villain in Mel Brooks' 1974 western parody Blazing Saddles is named "Hedley Lamarr." As a running gag, various characters refer to him incorrectly as "Hedy Lamarr," prompting him to testily respond, "That's Hedley."
Blazing Saddles was just the beginning of Lamarr's becoming pop culture. Soon she became an icon: the most beautiful woman in the world.
Audrey II tells Seymour in the song Feed Me in the 1982 off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors and subsequent film adaptation (1986) that he can get Seymour anything he wants, including "a date with Hedy Lamarr."
Lamarr and Antheil's lives are depicted in Frequency Hopping, an off-Broadway play written in 2008. The play's writer and director, Elyse Singer, won a STAGE award for best new play about science and technology.
On May 20, the British Computer Society unveiled a short film featuring Lamarr, one of 150 IT professionals selected from 150 applicants.
The New York Public Library exhibit Thirty Years of Photography featured a photograph of a topless Lamarr (circa 1930) by Austrian-born American photographer Trude Fleischmann.
The story of Lamarr's frequency-hopping spread spectrum invention was explored in an episode of Dark Matters: Twisted But True, a Science Channel show that explores the darker side of scientific discovery and experimentation, which premiered on September 7, 2011. Her work to improve wireless security was featured in the first episode of the Discovery Channel show How We Invented the World.
Anne Hathaway revealed that after learning that the original Catwoman was based on Lamarr, she studied all of her films in 2011 and incorporated some of her breathing techniques into her portrayal of Catwoman in the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises.
Google honored Hedy Lamarr's work in film and her contributions to scientific advancement with an animated Google Doodle on November 9, 2015, the 101st anniversary of her birth.
Heather Massie wrote and performed The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, a one-woman show. Lamarr was portrayed in the off-Broadway play ‘HEDY!’. Emily Ebertz also starred in the one-actor off-Broadway show Stand Still and Look Stupid: The Life Story of Hedy Lamarr, written by Mike Broemmel in 2016.
Whitney Frost, a character in the TV show Agent Carter, was also inspired by Hedy Lamarr and Lauren Bacall.
Celia Massingham portrayed Lamarr in The CW television series Legends of Tomorrow's sixth episode of the third season, titled Helen Hunt, in 2017. The episode is set in a 1937 Hollywoodland setting. On November 14, 2017, the episode aired.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a documentary about Lamarr's career as an actress and later as an inventor, premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, written and directed by Alexandra Dean and produced by Susan Sarandon. It premiered in theaters on November 24, 2017, and was broadcast on PBS American Masters in May 2018.
The documentary highlighted her significant contributions to modern technology. Since then, articles from Forbes, the Smithsonian, Biography, PBS, and The New York Times have contributed to reshaping how people remember and honor Lamarr.
In 2018, actress Alyssa Sutherland portrayed Lamarr in the third episode of the second season of the NBC television series Timeless, titled Hollywoodland. The episode first aired on March 25, 2018.
In 2019, Johnny Depp, an actor and musician, wrote "This Is A Song For Miss Hedy Lamarr" and performed it with Jeff Beck during a UK performance in May 2022.
In recording their new album, "18," Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp drew inspiration from the youth and creativity they discovered through their collaboration. A song dedicated to actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr has been released as the first single from the album.
In 2021, Hedy Lamarr was mentioned in the first episode of Marvel's What If...? On August 11, 2021, the episode aired.
Lamarr’s Personal Life
Hedy Lamarr was married and divorced six times:
- Friedrich Mandl (married 1933–1937)
- Gene Markey (married in 1939–1941)
- John Loder (married 1943–1947)
- Ernest "Ted" Stauffer (married 1951–1952)
- W. Howard Lee (married 1953–1960)
- Lewis J. Boies (married 1963–1965)
Hedy Lamarr’s children are James Lamarr Loder, Denise Loder, and Anthony Loder. For the last 35 years of her life, Lamarr remained unmarried after her sixth and final divorce in 1965.
Key Takeaways: Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr lived in an age where women had to choose between being beautiful or intelligent but she bravely chose to be both.
Like Ruth Handler and Melitta Bentz, Hedy Lamarr was also serious about her craft. Lamarr’s legacy may have come post-humously but her greatest legacy is the enjoyment, comfort, connectivity, and luxury that present-day life affords us because of today’s modern technology.
Hedy Lamarr was a world-famous actress and a self-taught inventor who created the technology that became the foundation for today's Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.
Now that her story has come to light, she is a source of motivation for young women in science and technology. Years after her death, her tenacity and drive for change and innovation inspire people to pursue their passions to make the world a better place.
Imitate how Hedy Lamarr is a role model for intelligence, ingenuity, and invention. Her story transcends age and geography, captivating scientists all over the world—the epitome of beauty and brains.