Hedy Lamarr was an inventor and an actress. She was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Austria. Both of her parents were Jewish. Although her mother had converted to Catholicism and raised her as a Catholic, her Jewish heritage would result in her eventually leaving Austria to escape the Nazis and drive her to assist the U.S. WWII effort by inventing Spread Spectrum Technology, which prevented the enemy from jamming radio signals that directed Navy torpedoes.
She became an actress in the late 1920s, first in Berlin and later in Vienna and the Czech Republic. In 1933, she married a wealthy Austrian remote-control weapon manufacturer and lived in a castle, Schloss Schwarzenau, where both Mussolini and Hitler supposedly attended parties. She attended meetings with her husband where military technology was discussed. This was her first exposure to science and it enabled her to learn about weapon technology. However, her marriage would not last long. She wrote, “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.”
In addition to leaving her husband, it was clear that she had to leave Austria because the Nazis had begun to occupy Austria. She and her mother went to Paris, where she met Louis B. Mayer, who encouraged her to change her name and signed her to MGM. She made her American film debut in 1938, and went on to make 18 movies in the 1940s. She became a U.S. citizen in 1953.
But, my interest in writing about her is not because of her career as an actress. It is because of her scientific achievements. She called this her “tinkering hobbies,” but in fact, she was an accomplished inventor. She made friends with Howard Hughes and he supported her inventions by having his engineers do anything she asked. Among her most significant achievements was to invent the “Secret Communication System,” which was a way to prevent the enemy from being able to jam the signals of radio-controlled torpedoes during WWII. She wanted to contribute to the war effort and to the take-down of the Nazi regime, and she had learned about radio-controlled torpedoes from attending meetings with her first husband—the Austrian arms manufacturer. So, she had the idea to invent a device that involved frequently changing radio frequencies to prevent the enemy from being able to detect the messages. She collaborated with her friend, composer George Antheil, to invent a device that would produce a frequency-hopping signal using a player-piano mechanism that was synchronized to radio signals. Hedy and George patented their design in 1942.
The device was not implemented by the Navy during WWII for a variety of reasons, among which were that the technology was difficult to reproduce and the U.S. military did not like to use unsolicited ideas from non-military people. However, in 1962, a version of the design was installed on Navy ships and used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In addition, the invention contributed to the development of the technology that is used today in cell phones, GPS systems, Bluetooth, and WiFi. By the time their technology was used, their patent had expired, so they received no financial benefits from the invention. Their work was recognized in 1997 with the Electronics Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, and Hedy was the first woman ever to receive the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. Her contributions to science and technology were featured in documentaries on the Science Channel and Discovery Channel. Both Hedy and George were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
She was married 6 times in all—the last marriage being to her divorce lawyer (just needed to throw that in there—SMH). She had three children, including her oldest son James, to whom she didn’t speak for many years after sending him away at the age of 12. She had always said that she had adopted James during her second marriage, but James later discovered that he was her biological son and that his biological father was Hedy’s third husband (not the one she was married to when James was born), who had adopted James during the marriage. She was arrested twice in separate instances for shoplifting. Her later years were spent as a recluse in Florida, where she talked on the phone a lot—some accounts say up to 7 or 8 hours a day—but she rarely allowed any in-person communication with anyone. Some speculate that the reason for her reclusive lifestyle was to hide her face due to botched plastic surgery; others say it was because of her severe drug addiction. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that she lived a very difficult life in the aftermath of stardom.
She died in 2000 at the age of 86. She left James out of her will even though they had re-established communication before her death. Predictably, litigation ensued.
Check out this Hollywood Reporter story about her and the 2017 documentary about her life, entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.