Women’s History Month – Hedy Lamarr

For the month of March, the world celebrates Women’s History Month. I am devoting a week each in March to one woman I am inspired by. 

For this week, I am devoting the week to Hedy Lamarr.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born 9 November 1914 to Gertrud “Trude” Kiesler (nee Lichtwitz) and Emil Kiesler in Vienna, Austria. She was a film star in Hollywood’s golden age, and has been described as one of the greatest movie actresses of all time. 

At the age of 12, she won a beauty contest in Vienna. She also began to associate invention with her father, who would take her out on walks, explaining how technology functioned. 

Lamarr forged a note from her mother and went to Sascha-Film and was able to get hired as a script girl. While there, she was able to get a role as an extra in Money on the Street (1930) then a small part in Storm in a Water Glass (1931). 

While in Berlin, she met Russian theatre producer Alexis Granowsky, who cast her in his debut, The Trunks of Mr. O.F. (1931). 

In 1933, at the young age of 18, Hedy was given the lead in Ecstasy. She played the neglected young wife of an indifferent older man. The film became both celebrated and notorious fr showing Hedy’s face in the throes of orgasm as well as close-up and brief nude scenes. 

Hedy played a number of stage roles after this. Admirers would send roses to her dressing room and tried to get backstage to see her. She sent most of them away, including a man who was more insistent, Friedrich Mandl. He became obsessed with her. Eventually, she fell for his charming and fascinating personality, partly due to his immense financial wealth. Her parents, both Jewish, did not approve, due to his ties to Italian fascist leader Mussolini and later, Adolf Hitler, but not even her parents could stop headstrong Hedy Lamarr. 

She married Mandl on 10 August 1933 at the Karlskirche. She was 18 and he was 33. She described Mandl as extremely controlling who objected to her simulated orgasm scene in Ecstasy and prevented her from pursuing her acting career. She claimed to have been kept a prisoner in their castle home, Schloss Schwarzenau. 

Mandl had close social and business ties to the government, selling munitions to the country and had ties to the Nazi regime of Germany. Dictators of both countries attended lavish parties at their home. She also accompanied her husband to meetings where he conferred with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. This was her introduction to the field of applied science and nurtured her latent talent in science. 

Hedy eventually separated from Mandl in 1937, also leaving her country.  She had described herself as her maid and fled to Paris. 

Hedy arrived in London in 1937 where she met Louis B Mayer who was head of MGM who had been scouting for talent in Europe. She initially turned down the offer he made her ($125/week) but she happened to book herself onto the same New York bound liner as him, and managed to impress him enough to secure $500/week. Mayer persuaded her to change her name to Hedy Lamarr to distance herself from her real identity and her reputation, choosing the surname in homage to the beautiful silent film star, Barba La Marr. Mayer brought her to Hollywood in 1938 and began promoting her as the “world’s most beautiful woman”. 

People were known to say things like, “everyone gasped…Lamarr’s beauty literally took one’s breath away.” 

In future films, she was typecast as the glamorous seductress of exotic origin. Due to her boredom of her lack of lines in her films and her archetypal roles, she took up inventing to relieve her boredom. 

Her off-screen life and personality during those years was quite different from her screen image. She spent most of her time alone, rather than in crowds. When she was asked for an autograph, she’d no idea why they would want it. She also had a penchant for speaking about herself in the third person. 

Although Hedy had no formal training and was primarily self-taught, she tinkered in her spare time on various hobbies and ideas, which included a traffic stoplight and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink. The beverage was unsuccessful, and was said to taste like Alka-Seltzer. 

During WWII, Hedy read that radio-controlled torpedoes had been proposed. However, an enemy might be able to jam such a guidance system and set it off course. When discussing this with her friend, the composer and pianist George Antheil, the idea was raised that a frequency-hopping signal might prevent the torpedo’s radio guidance system from being tracked or jammed. Antheil succeeded by synchronizing a miniaturized player piano mechanism with radio signals. Antheil sketched out the idea for the frequency-hopping system, which was to use a perforated paper tape which actuated pneumatic controls. 

Antheil was introduced to Samuel Stuart Mackeown, a professor of radio-electrical engineering at Caltech, whom Lamarr then employed for a year to implement the idea. Lamarr hired the Los Angeles legal firm of Lyon & Lyon to search for prior knowledge, and to craft the application] for the patent which was granted as U.S. Patent 2,292,387 on August 11, 1942 under her married name Hedy Kiesler Markey. In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award, given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the arts, sciences, business, or invention fields have significantly contributed to society. In 2014, Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Although the U.S. Navy did not adopt the technology until the 1960s, the principles of their work are incorporated into Bluetooth and GPS technology and are similar to methods used in legacy versions of CDMA and Wi-Fi. This work led to their induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Lamarr became a naturalized citizen of the United States at age 38 on April 10, 1953. From 1966 onwards, she committed shoplifting crimes but charges were dropped in return for her promise to refrain from breaking any laws for a year. By the 1970s, Hedy became secluded. 

In the last decades of her life, the telephone became Lamarr’s only means of communication with the outside world, even with her children and close friends. She often talked up to six or seven hours a day on the phone, but she spent hardly any time with anyone in person in her final years.

She died in Casselberry, Florida, on 19 January, 2000 of heart disease. 

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