How Hedy Lamarr helped shape modern technology

Julia Legge / 04 March 2018 ( 08 March 2019 )

Hedy Lamarr was a talented actress, but few people knew her as a gifted inventor. Find out how she co-created the technology used today in WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth...

She was a beautiful actress by day and an inventor by night. It may sound like the plot for a Hollywood movie, but it was reality for Hedy Lamarr. In an era when leading ladies’ careers were tightly controlled by the studio system, the likelihood of Lamarr’s double life ever being made public, let alone taken seriously, was slim.

A 2017 documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, (available to buy on Amazon) looks at what lay behind Hedy’s gift for invention. Interviews with family, friends and Hollywood stars from Mel Brooks to Diane Kruger, build a picture of a bright, complex woman who was the inspiration for Disney's Snow White, as well as Catwoman. Interview tapes for Forbes magazine in 1990 give a voice to Hedy the inventor and bring the documentary to life.

Early days

Hedy was born into an affluent family in Vienna in 1914. Her childhood was privileged, but perhaps the time spent walking through the vibrant city with her adored father sowed the first seeds of creativity. As they strolled through the busy streets, he would explain the mechanics of the things they encountered, such as trams. At school Hedy enjoyed chemistry lessons, but an enquiring, restless mind such as hers would never be content with a life of academia, and she left school at 16 with her sights set on an acting career.

With characteristic determination, Hedy began working as a script girl in a Viennese film studio, soon landing her first part. Bigger roles followed, including the controversial Ecstasy, where Hedy briefly appeared naked. While it raised her profile in Europe, when she moved to Hollywood it dogged her career. Her first husband, arms manufacturer Fritz Mandl, spent a fortune fruitlessly trying to buy up prints of the film, only to find no sooner than he’d bought one, multiple new copies would appear. He eventually gave up.

The journey to Hollywood

The political situation in Europe before the outbreak of World War ll was instrumental in Hedy’s journey to Hollywood. She left her husband, and while in London met Louis B Meyer of MGM. After rejecting his first offer to sign her up, she booked herself onto the same ocean liner for the Atlantic crossing, negotiated herself a better deal and was signed up by the time they reached New York.

While she starred in movies such as Algiers, Ziegfeld Girl and Samson and Delilah, the time between movies and any spare evenings was often spent inventing. She set aside a corner in her house, with a drafting table, lamp and her tools to hand for her favourite hobby.

Frustrated by the targeting of British vessels with civilians on board by German submarines, Hedy and composer George Anthiel developed an idea to keep Allied torpedoes safe from jamming by the Nazis. They patented their frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum technology but the US Navy dismissed it. Because it wasn’t used by the US Navy until the 1960s, the patent had expired and they never received any money for their invention. To support the war effort, Hedy used her celebrity status to promote the sale of war bonds – in just a fortnight in September 1942, she sold bonds worth $24 million. 

Modern pioneers

Lamarr and Anthiel's work is acknowledged as being important in digital communication, and is used in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS today. It’s fitting that before her death in 2000, Hedy’s contribution to modern technology gained some recognition.

She was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997, accepted on her behalf by her son Antony (sadly by this time Hedy lived alone and had become a recluse). During his speech Antony was interrupted by his mobile ringing. With brilliant timing it turned out to be Hedy, who wanted to find out how the presentation had gone. Anthiel wasn't forgotten either – he was given a posthumous honour.  

Bombshell is a fascinating watch, at times sad and funny, illuminating a hidden side to the Hollywood star and putting her inventive mind firmly in the spotlight.  

Read more about Hedy in Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr - buy it in the Saga Bookshop today!

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