Hedy Lamarr: The Double Life of a Hollywood Bombshell and Wartime Inventor

Hope & curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. The unknown was always so attractive to me…and still is. — Hedy Lamarr

If someone told you to imagine the scientist behind Bluetooth and GPS technology, who comes to mind? We may be conditioned to think of an older man with a PhD in Physics, or maybe a woman with similar credentials. But who would’ve thought that some of the world’s most widely-used communication systems were pioneered by a Hollywood bombshell and femme fatale? Fondly remembered as one of the most beautiful women in the world, Hedy Lamarr not only served as inspiration for the looks of popular fictional characters (look no further than Snow White and Catwoman!) but was also a self-taught inventor.

  • Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-American actress and inventor whose fame is due not only to her work in many films, television shows, and radio programmes but also her unmistakable knack for inventing.
  • Hollywood bombshell by day and talented inventor by night, Hedy nurtured her love for science all while cementing her reputation as a famed femme fatale. 
  • Amidst the turmoil brought about by World War II, Hedy became determined to use her intelligence to support the United States in their wartime efforts. 
  • Together with composer and pianist George Antheil, Hedy Lamarr invented the Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum, which allowed them to improve the Allied Forces’ radio-controlled torpedoes by establishing secure radio transmission that could not be intercepted by the Axis powers. 
  • Despite the fact that her technology was heavily relied upon during the Second World War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hedy’s work was repeatedly criticized; she only received proper recognition several years later. 
  • Hedy Lamarr isn’t your “typical scientist.” But what is “typical,” anyway? Her story reminds us that we are free to define our own identities as STEM students, teachers, enthusiasts––you name it! You don’t have to fit into a certain mold to be considered a scientist; your uniqueness is a gift that deserves to be celebrated.

Born in Austria to Jewish parents, Hedy showed potential as an actress early in her childhood. She attended acting classes and later took on small roles in various productions. At the age of 16, she withdrew from schooling and brought her stardom to the big screen. As her popularity soared, Hedy married a wealthy Austrian arms manufacturer who is often described in autobiographies as “extremely controlling,” prompting her to flee Austria (and her marriage) for the United States amid rising tensions between her home country and the Nazi Party. 

While on her trip, Hedy met Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. This turned out to be an incredibly significant encounter that helped jump start her career in Hollywood. There is no doubt that Hedy’s acting prowess profoundly impacted the world of film and even those beyond the scope of the entertainment industry, but her brilliance as an inventor remains her greatest legacy to humankind.

Hedy’s Other Life

When she wasn’t playing glamorous on-screen characters, one could find Hedy thinking up new inventions and tinkering with different paraphernalia; she picked up these hobbies at just five years old. Hedy’s special sense of discovery is due in large part to her father. On their walks together, they would discuss the mechanisms behind several contraptions—including her music box, which she once disassembled and then promptly reassembled! 

And so began Hedy’s love for the sciences (especially chemistry, her favorite subject at school). 

Even at the height of her acting career, Hedy never stopped inventing. As she continued to work on films, television shows, and radio programmes, she eventually grew upset about being typecast. 

Hedy soon found herself with more time on her hands as she declined invitations to lavish dinners and parties. She instead used her inventiveness to guide her as she set out to bring several ideas to life—one of her successful creations being a more aerodynamic version of Howard Hughes’ racing aeroplanes by redesigning the shape of their wings. Hedy did, however, hit a wall with some of her inventions: she tried producing effervescent tablets intended for “do-it-yourself soda,” but later admitted that the tablets tasted quite strange.

Her Greatest Invention

During the Second World War, Hedy felt guilt-ridden over leading a luxurious lifestyle in Hollywood while the world suffered. She considered putting her acting career on hold to serve the National Inventors Council (NIC) in Washington, D.C. Although this plan didn’t push through, she became determined to use her intelligence to support the United States in their wartime efforts. 

The Allied Forces used radio-controlled torpedoes to combat the Axis powers. Alas, these torpedoes were easily intercepted and often jammed as they operated on fixed frequencies. To solve this problem, Hedy—who had familiarized herself with several types of ammunition thanks to her former husband’s meetings—was inspired to create remote-controlled torpedoes to allow for secure communication. 

Hedy Lamarr is widely known as the inventor of the Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum, a method whereby radio signals delivered from a transmitter to a receiver simultaneously switch between different frequencies at rapid speeds. The signals “hop” along these frequencies in a predetermined order, resulting in safe, interference-free radio transmission. With the help of composer and pianist George Antheil, her idea was developed even further.

Although the inspiration for Hedy’s design is unclear, her sketches show the mechanisms behind the Philco Magic Box, a remote-controlled radio that utilized radio frequencies to easily change stations. Hedy and George’s biggest challenge was figuring out how to sync the hopping frequencies between the ships or aeroplanes (the transmitters) to the torpedoes (the receivers).

Antheil, drawing on his experience as a musician, then thought to mimic the technology of the self-playing piano. Inside these pianos are paper rolls that each have up to 88 holes; one hole represents a single key on the instrument. Following a similar principle, Hedy and George made use of perforated paper rolls to indicate the exact patterns through which the frequencies would switch, and the specific times they would be synchronized. The finished product was a secret communication channel that not only guided both the transmitters and receivers but also impeded enemy interference.

This wasn’t Hedy and George’s only brainchild during World War II––at least two more of their gadgets were sent to the National Inventors Council, but their work on frequency hopping remains their greatest contribution. The engineers from the NIC were impressed with their discovery, so much so that they introduced the inventors to Sam Mackeown, a physicist who helped design the electronic components required for devices that perform frequency hopping. From there, Lamarr and Antheil finally secured a patent for their invention.

The Downsides of Being a Hollywood Bombshell

After successfully obtaining a patent, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil donated their creation to aid the United States in their fight against the Axis powers. Unfortunately, the Navy rejected and mocked their idea, quipping that a mechanism designed for self-playing pianos didn’t belong inside torpedoes. Hedy was instead encouraged to participate by selling war bonds and entertaining the troops. What’s more, her patent was seized by the U.S. government as they argued it belonged to an enemy alien; Austrian by birth, Lamarr had not yet become a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Many didn’t believe that the ever-glamorous Hedy Lamarr could make a discovery as revolutionary as frequency hopping. Throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, American forces used her technology to produce sonar buoys that could detect submarines and protect private communication lines. And yet, she did not receive any financial compensation. Hedy only gained recognition for her scientific breakthrough several years later.

Treasuring Hedy Lamarr’s Legacy

Teeming with valuable insight, Hedy Lamarr’s story is nothing short of inspiring. Her peers poked fun at her intellect, but that didn’t stop her from ploughing through the harmful bias so that she could carry on inventing––all while being in the public eye, no less. She continued to nurture her love for the sciences all throughout making a name for herself as an actress, putting a spotlight on the importance of celebrating diversity and individuality in STEM fields. 

On account of the busy life she led, Hedy never pursued higher education. Her knowledge of engineering and physics result from the time she spent teaching herself various scientific theories and ideas, allowing her to hone her skills as an inventor. Even so, not having a degree doesn’t make her less of a scientist. For those who are hesitant to explore the world of STEM due to a lack of confidence or experience, Lamarr proves that as long as you are passionate and hardworking, you are bound to succeed along your chosen path. 

By taking a stand against the social norms of her time, Hedy has boldly redefined what it means to be a scientist. It’s about time we shatter stereotypes and encourage others to define their own identities in STEM. Regardless of your gender identity, educational background, or occupation, your voice deserves to be heard. After all, you never know who you’re inspiring.

Written by Zoe Huertas
Edited by Sophie Maitland-Smith
Graphics by Bianca Amurao

REFERENCES

Brancaccio, D. (2019, April 29). The story of Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood beauty whose invention helped enable Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth. Marketplace. https://www.marketplace.org/2017/11/21/inventor-changed-our-world-and-also-happened-be-famous-hollywood-star/

Dean, A. (Director). (2017). Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr story [Film]. Reframed Pictures.

H. (2018, February 16). How Are Women In STEM Portrayed In The Media? Hypatia Project. http://www.expecteverything.eu/women-stem-portrayed-media/

Hourly History. (2021). Hedy Lamarr: A Life from Beginning to End (Biographies of Actors). Independently published.

Hsu, J. (2012, March 25). Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood’s secret weapon inventor. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna46848978

Hutchinson, P. (2018, December 3). Hedy Lamarr – the 1940s ‘bombshell’ who helped invent wifi. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/mar/08/hedy-lamarr-1940s-bombshell-helped-invent-wifi-missile

K. (2019, July 22). Cocktail Party Physics and the Origin of Frequency Hopping | The Hearing Review – a MEDQOR brand. The Hearing Review. https://www.hearingreview.com/practice-building/practice-management/continuing-education/blog-page-cocktail-party-physics-origin-frequency-hopping

Long, T. (2011, August 11). Aug. 11, 1942: Actress + Piano Player = New Torpedo. Wired. https://www.wired.com/2011/08/0811hedy-lamar-george-antheil-torpedo-patent/

Rhodes, R. (2012). Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (Illustrated ed.). Vintage.

Rothstein, A. (2019, May 17). Forgotten Technologies of Recorded Music: The Player Piano. IPR. https://www.ipr.edu/blogs/audio-production/forgotten-technologies-of-recorded-music-the-player-piano/

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