Hedy Lamarr: Screen Siren and Pioneering Inventor

In celebration of International Women's Day, writers at HC Manchester are sharing the stories of the incredible women that inspire them.

The remarkable story of Hedy Lamarr came to the fore two years ago with the release of the documentary film, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017). The documentary reveals the fascinating life of a screen siren that, in her spare time, created one of the most important pieces of technology for our world today.

Hedy grew up in Vienna in a wealthy Jewish family. She began her showbiz career while she was a teenager, acting in small Austrain films, the most famous of which was the controversial 1933 film Ecstasy, which made her world famous for its nudity and sex scenes.

Due to her religion, the film was banned by Hitler. And, as the war loomed, Hedy left for England where she met Louis B. Mayer, one of the co-founders of MGM Pictures, who immediately signed her to be an actress for the studio. Her stunning beauty made her an instant success in Hollywood. But, after working long hours at the film studios, she would go home and work on her latest invention.

By 1940, the German army was expanding across Europe at great speed. The Allies were particularly threatened by German U-boats, a threat that provided an idea for Hedy’s inventive creativity. She came up with the idea of radio-controlled torpedoes whose communications with their ship couldn’t be jammed by the enemy. To create secure communications, Hedy used the idea of frequency hopping. By moving between frequencies, the enemy could only jam the signal for a second before it moved to a different frequency and the communication continued.

She met George Antheil, a composer, at a party and their partnership would bring Hedy’s idea to life. However, the Navy rejected the invention. As a film star it was generally thought she would be of more use entertaining the troops or selling war bonds rather than inventing. Even more extraordinarily, her patent was seized by the government as she was an ‘alien element’ having not yet acquired official citizenship. Hedy herself commented on how they used her for selling bonds without seeing her an alien, but when she began inventing things, she instantly became one.

After conflict with Louis B. Mayer at MGM, she left and began to produce her own films. For an actor to go behind the camera and take a management role was new, particularly for a woman seen on screen as ‘the bombshell’.  At the same time, with several failed marriages behind her, Hedy was a single mother raising two children. The pressure of Hollywood took its toll and Hedy suffered from addiction and a nervous breakdown, eventually becoming a recluse until end of her life. 

It was only in her final years that Hedy was recognised and awarded for her revolutionary technology which today provides the basis of GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Hedy was never taken as anything more than the beauty on screen and her chance to be a professional scientist or engineer was "an option derailed by her beauty."

The film ends with Hedy reading a piece which sums up her life. One line reads, "give the world the best you have and you’ll be kicked into the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway."