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How Hedy Lamarr Changed the World

The hilariously true life adventures and musings of a pragmatic introvert and professional writer.

How Hedy Lamarr Changed the World

Hedy Lamarr in 1940, courtesy of MGM/Clarence Bull

Who was Hedy Lamarr?

If you’ve never heard of Hedy Lamarr, it pains me that you’re not alone, so I’m making it my mission to change that. She’s best known for being an actress, but that’s not how she changed the world. Among other things, she was a brilliant inventor who shaped the future with her ideas, and every time you use your cell phone, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or GPS, you have her to thank. Her most famous invention was US Patent 2,292,387: the technology that made those things and more possible. Read on for more about the exceptional woman you’ll want to thank the next time you get a text. (Unless it’s from someone lame, but that’s not on Hedy. 😂)

Hedy Lamarr, the Actress

Actress Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood icon who was Austrian-born to Jewish parents. Her reputation as “the world’s most beautiful woman” and the femme fatale roles she played during her two-decade MGM career belied her extraordinary brilliance. In fact, it was boredom with her stereotypical lines and lack of acting challenges that led to her becoming an inventor. While her co-stars worked on their tans, scandalously slept with each other, and abused various substances, Hedy worked on coming up with the system of wireless communication that became the foundation of cellphones, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ship-to-ship communication, and even guided missiles.

A forged a note from her mother enabled her to get a job as a script girl when she was 16, which led to her being cast as an extra. A speaking part followed, as did Austrian, German, and Czech roles, including the lead in “Ecstasy,” a controversial film that depicted the first onscreen female orgasm…56 years before the pie scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” 

Catapulted to international fame at 18, Hedy married a wealthy Austrian ammunition dealer 15 years her senior shortly thereafter. Sadly, the realization that her husband was a Nazi arms dealer turned her fairytale into a nightmare. She became a virtual prisoner who was forbidden to continue acting but cast in the surreal role of hosting Hitler and Mussolini at lavish parties thrown by her husband. However, she also accompanied him to meetings with scientists and military technology experts, which is what ignited her passionate talent for applied science and changed the future of communication. 

After finally fleeing her husband by dressing up as her maid and escaping to Paris, she met Louis B. Mayer in London the same year. She ultimately signed a contract with MGM, changed her name from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr, and moved to Hollywood. Her first MGM film was released in 1938; her last in 1958. All told, Hedy appeared or starred in 30 films, as well as plays and television. And yes, she was beautiful, but her true legacy is her mind.

Hedy Lamarr, Inventor Extraordinaire

In addition to her own inventions, Hedy’s ingenuity also helped shape the biggest invention of one of her biggest supporters…Howard Hughes. They were romantically involved at one point, but the collaboration of their minds went beyond that. The eccentric billionaire believed in Hedy so completely that he gave her unlimited access to his team of scientists and engineers to develop her inventions. She, in turn, was inspired by a book on birds and fish to design a more aerodynamic shape for his airplane wings so his planes would go faster.

It’s what she devised with the help of classical music composer George Antheil between filming at the height of World War II that paved the way for modern digital life. Essentially, they came up with a secret communications system that randomly manipulated radio frequencies to encrypt signals so they could be transmitted without being detected, deciphered, or jammed. 

Both transmitter and receiver simultaneously changed radio frequencies according to a special code, and at each end of the transmission, identical paper rolls like the ones used on player pianos dictated the code according to their pattern of slots. Player pianos hold and change notes at different intervals to make melodies…their invention held and changed radio frequencies to make an unbreakable code. 

Granted US Patent 2,292,387 on August 11, 1942, Hedy and Antheil’s frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology laid the groundwork for modern-day communication. 

Hedy’s Later Years

Hedy married and divorced six times over the course of her life, adopting one child with her second husband having two more with her third husband. Her once thriving career declined and concluded with her last film in 1958. She continued inventing until the end of her life, retiring to Florida and living on the royalties she received from her 1966 autobiography, Ecstasy and Me

The financial reward she and Antheil received for advancing the communication field was $0. On the bright side, they received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award and the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Awards before she died in 2000. They were also posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014, and the Science and Discovery Channels, Newsweek, and NPR have all featured Hedy. So, next time you check your phone or put an address in your GPS, remember Hedy Lamarr!

The End

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