Having written two research papers on her, it seems as if I have already met Hedy Lamarr. Which is why my answer to the ice-breaker, “who is one person you would want to meet, dead or alive,” will always be Hedy. Hedy was an actress in the Golden Age of Hollywood, even coined “World’s Most Beautiful Woman.” Though her real life was comparable to an Old Hollywood film, with inventions of espionage and escaping cruel husbands, Hedy never won an Oscar for her work in films. However, she did win the “Oscar” for inventing the Spread Spectrum Technology (the basis of WiFi today).
Hedy was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria. Her father was a bank director and her mother was a Hungarian pianist, who made sure Hedy studied ballet and piano as a child. Along with playing the piano, young Hedy used to deconstruct pianos and clocks and remake them. She was always inquiring about everyday things she saw, and her father encouraged her curious nature by taking her on walks where he explained to the inquisitive Hedy how different societal technologies functioned. As a teen, Hedy attended a prestigious acting school in Berlin, while still harboring an interest in the art of invention.
In her early twenties, Hedy was married to Friedrich Mandl. Mandl threw lavish parties that were attended by those with ties to the Nazi party. Hedy secretly ran away from her controlling husband and his terrifying ideologies to star in movies. In Hollywood, Hedy found success in many movies where, when her face first appeared on the screen, a fan being interviewed said: “Everyone gasped…Lamarr’s beauty literally took one’s breath away.” Alongside her continued professional success, World War II was becoming increasingly dangerous. Hedy had a dream to aid the Allies in war, more than merely using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. Just as young Hedy was taking apart machines to examine their anatomy, older Hedy was inventing in her trailer between takes. So alongside her neighbor George Antheil, she worked hard to invent something that would do just that and help the Allies.
This invention, which was not used by many before the 90s, was called Spread Spectrum Technology, a step towards wireless communications and cellular data. The best way to describe the spread spectrum is that it is a system for the radio control of airborne torpedoes called frequency-hopping. By rapidly switching a radio transmission among a large number of frequency channels, the idea was helpful to winning the war. Hedy, however, wasn’t instantly recognized for her invention since its impact was not understood until decades later. This was the case for many famous women inventors at that time.
Once the importance of her invention was finally recognized, Hedy became the first female recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award (also known as “the Oscar of invention”) in 1997. And in 2014, Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
After six marriages and a life lived as glamorous as a Golden Age starlet could, Hedy retired from the film industry completely in 1957. She settled in Altamonte Springs, Florida, and later died on January 19, 2000 in her home. Years ago, Hedy was valued more highly as an actress than as an inventor (by her peers, family, and the US government). Today, however, Hedy Lamarr has been known to have a profound impact on both the silver screen and on our small screens. Having been the muse of multiple class projects of mine, I believe her real story is no less fascinating than her movies and is one that deserves to be heard.
Given the sheer grandeur of Hedy Lamarr’s life, it is inevitable that Hollywood will make a biopic of her life. Hedy’s story needs to be articulated in a respectful manner. What it does not need is the Blonde treatment that Marilyn Monroe received. When Hedy’s time does come, I hope the message of her movie is one that encourages young scientists to follow their dreams and tells young girls that they are so much more than their physical appearance.