Beauty and Brains: The Story of Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr and the Wireless Communications Invetion

Jhemmylrut Teng
Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood's "most beautiful woman"(Source: Hedy Lamarr Official Website)

We are now living in an era wherein wireless communication is being considered an essential part of life. We used Wi-Fi connection not just for our work but for our daily grind. And whenever it slows down, it seems like our world stops.

We all know what Wi-Fi is, but do we know who are the people behind this amazing technology? Well, one of them was a Hollywood bombshell. And she's none other than Hedy Lamarr.

This lady didn't merely shine through in the golden age of Hollywood films but also created one of the best technology during the Second World War.

Lamarr's charm captured the hearts of the American people. But what they didn't know, this femme fatale who starred in almost 30 Hollywood flicks was actually a genius.

From Austria to Hollywood

Lamarr was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 9, 1914, into a Jewish family. Her real name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. She was an only child; therefore, her parents' attention was focused on her. Hef father was a bank director and an intelligent man. According to the National Women History Museum, Lamarr's father opened her eyes to the world of machinery, particularly those equipment used in the printing press and building cars.

At the age of 5, Lamarr was already curious about building and repairing things. She was usually fixing some of her toys at home. Suppose her dad piqued her interest in machinery and invention. Her mom, on the other hand, introduced her to the world of arts.

Lamarr's mother was a concert pianist; accordingly, she learned piano and ballet quickly with her mom's encouragement.

Apart from talent and brains, Lamarr also possessed a beautiful face. It was no wonder that she got discovered by Max Reinhardt, a movie director, at age of 16. And by 1930, she had her first film debut in Germany called Geld auf der Straβe (Money on the Street).

Introduction to the world of weaponry

Lamarr became one of the most sought-after young actresses in her country. Because of this, she captured the attention of a munition dealer, Friedrich "Fritz" Mandl. They got married in 1933; however, the marriage didn't last long.

Lamarr felt her husband imprisoned her for being overprotective. Thus, she was forced to smile and entertain Madl's friends, business partners, and clients. Most of these people were from the Nazi Party. She escaped from Mandl's grasp in 1937 by fleeing to London. However, She took with her the knowledge gained from the dinner-table conversation over wartime weaponry.

The golden ticket to the U.S.

According to Lamarr's website, she went to London after escaping her husband. There, she met the most prominent Louis B. Mayer of the MGM Studios. This meeting opened a huge door for Lamarr to enter Hollywood.

When she landed in the United States, she charmed the American people by her dark locks, perfect face, sparkling green eyes, and thick Austrian accent. Lamarr settled in Beverly Hills, and released her first Hollywood film, Algiers, in 1938. She continued to land parts opposite the most popular and talented actors of the day, including Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart. Some of her films include an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat (1942), White Cargo (1942), Samson and Delilah (1949), and The Female Animal (1958).

Later on, she was labeled as "the most beautiful woman in film."
Hollywood actress, Hedy Lamarr(Source: Hedy Lamarr Official Website)

Lamarr's Wireless Connection

Lamarr's rise to fame in Hollywood led her to rub elbows with the creme de la creme of the social elite circle. Eventually, she met businessman and pilot Howard Hughes. And they started dating. Hughes was known for his innovative mind, especially, in the aviation industry. His character ignited Lamarr's passion for innovation.

Hughes took her to his airplane factories, showed her how the planes were built and introduced her to the scientists behind the process. Hughes wanted to create faster planes that could be sold to the U.S. military, and Lamarr finds this inspiring.

Hughes believed Lamarr is a genius. So, he gave her equipment she could use in her trailer truck, and she kept inventing stuff while in between takes.
Hedy Lamarr was a passionate innovator(Source: Forbes)

WWII invention

At the height of the Second World War, Lamarr believed that she needs to contribute more significantly to combat the Axis powers in the European Theatre. She then invented the "frequency hopping" technology, also known as the "Secret Communication System."

Lamarr worked with a partner - an eccentric composer named George Antheil. Lamarr and Antheil had similar visions, so they intensely worked together. Lamarr also knew about weaponry because of his ex-husband. Consequently, her invention could've enhanced Allied forces' war equipment.

The frequency hopping technology aimed to protect the radio communications of the Allied forces; it would block enemy ships from jamming torpedo guidance signals. The radio transmitter and the torpedo's receiver jump simultaneously from frequency to frequency, making it impossible for the Nazi to locate and block a message before it had moved to another frequency.

After its creation, Lamarr and Antheil sought a patent and military support for the invention. The patent was granted in August 1942, but the U.S. military rejected the implementation of frequency hopping.

Unrecognized inventor

Because of such rejection, Lamarr continued to assist the war efforts by traveling to 16 cities. According to Smithsonian Magazine, she managed to generate $25 million in war bonds in just 10-days. The actress also started an MGM letter-writing campaign that generated 2,144 letters to service members. She appeared at the Hollywood Canteen, where she signed autographs for off-duty GI Joes.

Forbes said Lamarr was not given credit for all her inventions. Hollywood packaged her as a bombshell. She was marketed to be idolized by women and fantasized by men. The zeitgeist in that era for women in the entertainment industry objectified as "vixens" for their physical features. And being admirable because they have a brain was not ideal for showbusiness.

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." - Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr's 1933 photo for her erotic-romantic movie, Ecstasy(Source:
Hedy Lamarr movie in 1958(Source: Hedy Lamarr Official Website)

Mother of Wi-Fi Technology

People barely knew that the woman they considered the most beautiful face in the film industry was also a genius. The public was more curious and updated with Lamarr's personal life and scandals. She was known to be a woman who had six marriages.

Her patent on frequency hopping had expired before the widespread implementation of the idea. But she lived long enough to see her invention expanding into a vast industry late in the 20th century.

She was already in her twilight years when she was finally recognized for her remarkable creation. In 1997, she received a pioneer award from Electronic Frontier Foundation. She was also the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.

The frequency hopping was worth $30 billion, but she never earned money from it.

Frequency hopping is often a component of wireless communication systems that allows more users to communicate simultaneously with less signal interference. Multiple signals can employ the same frequency, and if the signal fails or is obstructed, it hops to another one.

Now, we used this technology for Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi.

"Hope and curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. That's the way I was. The unknown was always so attractive to me... and still is." - Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr, 1960s(Source: Old Hollywood)

Lamarr died in 2000, at the age of 85. In 2014, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the development of her frequency hopping technology. This achievement has led her to be dubbed: “the mother of Wi-Fi.”

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.


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