Hedy Lamarr: Secret inventor

Hedy Lamarr was “the Angelina Jolie of her day,” starring in films from the 1930s to the late 1950s. This actress, who was considered “the most beautiful girl in the world”—her face serving as the inspiration for both Catwoman and Disney’s Snow White—was also a brilliant inventor. Some say she was a genius.

This month we’re talking about famous inventors who changed the course of transportation forever with their unique talents. Most of our inventors weren’t considered great transportation engineers by their peers—at least not at the time, however, their inventions continue to impact transportation and the transportation systems we use today.

In fact, you can thank Lamarr for your Global Positioning System (GPS). Her innovation helped bring these types of communication technologies to life, so the next time you’re lost in traffic and you pull out your phone to use Google Maps, you can remember the story of Hedy Lamarr.

Inventor profile: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Kiesler, was an immigrant.

Lamarr was born on November 9, 1914, in Austria’s capital city of Vienna. Growing up, she took long walks with her father. During their walks, he explained to her how all different types of machines worked—like printing presses and street cars. These conversations certainly had an impact on the young girl and budding inventor.

Hedy Lamarr, circa 1940. Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Photographer Clarence Bull
Hedy Lamarr, circa 1940.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Photographer Clarence Bull

It is said that these memories and her father’s enthusiasm for technology “instilled in her a lifelong interest in invention.” However, she was brought to stardom at 16 for an entirely different feature: her beauty. Lamarr was discovered by a director named Max Reinhardt who thought the young girl, just a teenager at the time, would make an excellent film star.

Amidst a budding acting career, she married Fritz Mandl, one of Austria’s largest arms dealers. She was forced to end her acting career and instead served as a hostess to Mandl’s many business guests. Hedy learned about weapons and warfare over dinner conversation, and that knowledge would open up new doors during the next phase of her life.

Wartime technology

After running away from her relationship and home country, Lamarr made her way to the United States, where she returned to the limelight, but this time in Hollywood. She starred in dozens of films and was given the title “most beautiful girl in the world.”

Hedy Lamarr on film. Photo from Wikipedia
Hedy Lamarr on film.
Photo from Wikipedia

Then, during the 1940s, when World War II was breaking out across Europe, Lamarr had an idea for a communication system that would guide allied torpedos with radio signals. Her idea included a way that could prevent the enemy from “jamming” the signal by switching to different radio frequencies. She named her idea “frequency hopping.”

The idea was that the torpedo and airplane would hop among different frequencies, and when one transmission changed radio signals, the other would switch to the same frequency. The enemy would have trouble figuring out which frequency to jam, but since the airplane and torpedo were in sync with one another’s radio frequencies, they could still communicate and accurately attack the target.

Lamarr co-invented the technology with her friend—pianist George Antheil, who helped her bring her ideas to life with piano technology—and the two were awarded a patent for their “secret communication system” on August 11, 1942. The two then submitted their patent to the U.S. military, who didn’t understand the value of the technology until many years later—20 years to be exact—when it was used on U.S. Navy ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Hedy Lamarr’s patent. Photo from National Air and Space Museum
Hedy Lamarr’s patent.
Photo from National Air and Space Museum

Other contributions

Lamarr also made other, more immediate, contributions in the name of transportation innovation.

She was friends with Howard Hughes, who made his name as a film producer but became influential in the aviation industry, too. American business magnate, investor, film director, and philanthropist, Hughes was also as an aerospace pioneer.

Howard Hughes on the cover of TIME magazine. Photo from Wikipedia
Howard Hughes on the cover of TIME magazine.
Photo from Wikipedia

Through a relationship with Hughes, Lamarr helped him streamline his aircraft design. In her later years, she recounted this experience, remarking that she thought the airplanes at the time were too slow and shouldn’t have square-shaped wings.

She said she bought a “book of birds” and a “book of fish” and found the fastest fish and bird in each. She drew together her combined knowledge, and when she showed it to Hughes, he told her she was “a genius.”

Actress/inventor

Since it was implemented in the 1960s, and declassified in the 1980s, Lamarr’s frequency hopping technology has been a critical element of cellphone technology, internet connections, defense systems, and everything in between like Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. In other words, Lamarr’s invention was no joke—it laid the framework for our interconnected world.

Lamarr was a multi-dimensional woman, who many say was ahead of her time. However, since her patent had expired by the time her innovation was recognized, she never made any money off of her brilliant idea. That said, because of her innovation, she is remembered today for not only her beauty but also her brains.

Lamarr noted many times that people never got past her beauty and didn’t take her seriously as an inventor. Like many other inventors, Lamarr never received the recognition she deserved when she deserved it, but her innovation changed the course of technology for all time.

If there’s one thing to be learned from Lamarr’s story, it’s that you don’t have to stick to one thing. You can be a scientist, engineer, inventor, or even an actress all at the same time.  

References

Related links

(Video) Hedy Lamarr - A Beautiful Face and Mind: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_HxDIbuvA0

(Video) Google Doodle Hedy Lamarr’s 101st Birthday - Animation Video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuKZqsQfroQ

(Video) History Channel Presentation: Hedy Lamarr 4 Minutes: www.youtube.com/watch?v=NI8nOa9BvjY

(Video) Howard Hughes Clip: www.youtube.com/watch?v=SB4rApjkzMk

(Podcast) The story of Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood beauty whose invention helped enable Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth: www.marketplace.org/2017/11/21/tech/inventor-changed-our-world-and-also-happened-be-famous-hollywood-star

(Article) 18 Women Who Changed The World Through Their Genius Inventions: www.wereblog.com/18-women-and-their-genius-inventions

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer