Born: 9 November, 1914 – Vienna, Austria
Died: 19 January, 2000 – Florida, United States of America
Known as: one of hollywood's most famous film stars and an inventor
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria, Hedy Lamarr's rise to stardom was meteoric. She was, initially, discovered as a bit-part actress on the streets of Berlin. Before long, she was in larger parts, eventually snagging the lead role in No Money Needed.
But it was a controversial film which made her globally recognised – Ecstasy.
You'll hear tell about this film in lists of wayback scandals in the golden age of cinema: "The first time audiences saw Hedy Lamarr, she was running naked through a field," one article notes; they also note the film was banned in the United States, denounced by the Pope, and would be a stigma attached to Hedy for her entire career. Following the movie, Hedy changed her name and emigrated to the United States to pursue a glittering film career in Hollywood. Her studio's best attempts weren't enough – audiences knew Hedy was a sex symbol, and there she would stay, playing the part of the seductress, tempting audiences with her striking beauty. "She is the most beautiful woman in the world," said MGM studio executives. However, they were blind to something far more important: behind the glamour, there was brilliance.
While her film career thrived, Hedy threw herself into her hobby by night – inventing. She, alongside her co-inventor George Antheil, created the foundations for some of the modern age's most recognisable inventions. The frequency hopping system – which, in later decades, would evolve into WiFi and Bluetooth technology – was created in 1940, mostly as a way to help Allied Navy ships evade interference in foreign waters during World War II. It would allow Allies to send out radio-controlled torpedoes without interruption by German ships by spreading the frequency over a wider bandwidth, coordinating 88 frequency shifts from ship to torpedo. The technology was, in part, developed from George's background as a composer; it, like pianos, consisted of a player roll, but this would control the frequency on each antenna rather than play music. It would make the torpedoes almost impossible to block, and make messages very difficult to intercept. Hedy and George successfully patented the technology in 1942.
The US Navy chose not to use the frequency hopping system initially; instead, during the war, the military advised her that inventing was not her role in the war effort, but instead standing around, looking pretty, entertaining the troops and selling kisses. It was a common theme in early (and, often, current) scientific discoveries: the devices discovered or invented by women are discarded and their achievements pushed to the side. Hedy was briefly known as an inventor due to an LA Times article, but it was gradually forgotten and reduced to a joke – how could this screen siren, whose only role was to be gazed upon, actually be intelligent?
By 1962 – when the US Navy chose to use the frequency hopping system – Hedy and George's patent had expired, and so the pair never saw a dime for their efforts. It wasn't until 1997, three years before Hedy's death, that she was recognised as the inventor of this marvellous technology. Hedy received the Electronic Frontier Pioneer Award that same year, received the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award, and, in 2014, was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
She may have been a bombshell in her lifetime, and a relative recluse in her later years, but Hedy Lamarr's legacy lives on – a brilliant mind, finally acknowledged in a time of soaring technology.