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Not just a pretty face

Hedy Lamarr, the inventor

Created date

June 9th, 2016
Actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr.

Actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr.

Most people know her as a gorgeous movie legend. 

Hedy Lamarr had an unforgettable on-screen presence to anyone who saw her films. She stood five feet, seven inches tall, with an elegant, model’s figure and a face as beautiful for its symmetry as it was for its sultry expression.

Generally speaking, the age-old stereotype is that such women are all looks and no brains. But make no mistake, Hedy Lamarr wasn’t just a pretty face.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria-Hungry, in 1914, Lamarr had esteemed origins. Her father was a successful banker, and her mother was a concert pianist from a well-to-do family.

In the late 1920s, Lamarr began training as an actress. Discovered by film and theater producer Max Reinhardt, she traveled to Berlin, where she studied for the stage before returning to her hometown of Vienna to work in the motion picture industry.

Although she started as a script girl, her talent and good looks soon landed her acting jobs, perhaps the best known of them being the notoriously racy Ecstasy (1933), a Czechoslovakian film in which she had several nude scenes.

That same year, Lamarr married one of the top five wealthiest men in Austria, Fritz Mandl, a munitions tycoon 14 years her senior. According to her autobiography, Mandl was a jealous, controlling husband who inhibited her acting career and kept her pent up at their massive estate, Schloss Schwarzenau.

Brush with Hitler

It was around this time that Adolf Hitler emerged as a formidable figure in the German government. While Lamarr and Mandl both had Jewish lineage, they entertained the up-and-coming fascist leader at parties and, more importantly, formal conferences where new weapons were a topic of discussion.

Lamarr found her husband insufferable, but with her high IQ, she was on fertile ground at his munitions meetings. She absorbed all that she heard, thus laying the foundation for an impressively solid background in applied science.

By 1937, her marriage had become too much for her to bear. Disguised as her maid, Lamarr fled Mandl, seeking refuge in Paris. 

Here she met film mogul Louise B. Mayer; and she was off to Hollywood, where she embarked on a fresh life.

Between 1940 and 1949, Lamarr completed 18 films, bringing her enormous fame. But even this did not compare to another of her achievements—one that testified to the substance beneath her beauty.

During World War II, everyone in America was doing his and her part to contribute to the fight against Japan and Nazi Germany. Lamarr, now an American, was no exception.

An accomplished inventor

The interest and knowledge in science that she had accrued while married to Mandl had become something of a pastime for the actress. Indeed, she’d actually patented several inventions, including an improved traffic light and tablets that could carbonate drinks.

In 1941, Lamarr paired up with Hollywood composer and fellow inventor George Anthiel to create a much bigger improvement.

With the ongoing war, a huge portion of which was naval based, torpedoes comprised a critical military asset. More specifically, the Navy was considering the use of radio-controlled torpedoes, which an operator could direct to a target using broadcast frequencies.

The problem, as Lamarr and Anthiel recognized, was that enemies could jam these frequencies, rendering the torpedoes useless. 

The duo’s idea was to create a frequency-hopping device virtually impervious to interference. They accomplished this using a rolled punch card similar to those seen in player pianos.

Essentially, the Navy would load each torpedo with a roll that would continually alter the frequency used to control the weapon, thereby making it nearly impossible for an enemy to lock in on a signal and jam it.

Secret communications system

Lamarr and Anthiel drew up designs, along with a detailed description of their invention. On August 11, 1942, the U.S. government awarded them patent number 2,292,357, for a “Secret Communications System.”

The Navy never implemented their invention during the war, yet their concept for a frequency-alternating guidance system was in use on American warships by 1962, just in time for the Cuban missile crisis.

As is often the case with inventions, Lamarr and Anthiel’s design paved the way for the future of telecommunications and the Internet. In fact, their patent is the basis for the modern spread-spectrum technology used in Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth connectivity. 

In 2014, Lamarr deservedly won a posthumous place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, along with her partner, Anthiel.

To be sure, a movie star makes an unlikely innovator, especially if you judge solely on her good looks. But behind Lamarr’s pretty face was a powerhouse of a mind.