Hedy Lamarr was the type of woman judgmental people love to underestimate. With her hazy green eyes, jet black hair, full lips, and coy smile, she was once known as the most beautiful woman in the world. Her looks were so captivating that she captured the attention of Hollywood producers in the 1930s and 1940s. However, as Lamarr once said, “The brains of people are more interesting than the looks . . .” This especially rang true with her. Although she became typecast as the exotic, seductive femme fatale, she was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century, embodying the phrase “women in tech” before the concept even existed.
People tend to recognize true genius after a person is long gone—just ask Galileo, Thoreau, Van Gogh, and Tesla. Despite the fame that she experienced as a glamorous actress, Lamarr was no exception to the rule. She died as a hermit with little money to her name, although she invented the technology that powers so much of our world today.
If you’re reading this article on a smartphone or computer hooked up to WiFi, take a moment to learn more about the woman that made this feat possible.
What Did Hedy Lamarr Invent?
Until recently, actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr’s legacy was nothing short of shallow. She was just one of the many beautiful actresses that graced the screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Yet, in reality, historians should write Lamarr into history books as one of the most influential figures in the field of modern technology. Her invention, frequency hopping—a type of wireless technology—led to the advent of WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS.
The Highlights of Lamarr’s Life
Before getting too deep into the Hedy Lamarr inventions, it’s important to first understand her background. Find out more about her and the reason she became an innovator below.
Hedy Lamarr is born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, to a Jewish family. Her father was a banker and her mother was a concert pianist.
Lamarr begins her acting career. Her roles become progressively more important. In 1933, she received international recognition as the lead in Ecstasy. Despite a great performance, the film included explicit content such as nudity, creating a reputation she never seemed to shake.
At this time, Lamarr also married her first husband, Freidrich Mandl, a wealthy Austrian munitions manufacturer. The marriage was unhappy and short-lived. Lamarr ended up hiring a maid, drugging her, stealing her uniform, and running away from Mandl.
Lamarr meets Louis Mayer, a famous Hollywood executive, in London. Shortly thereafter, she secures a contract with MGM and moves to the United States.
During her contract with MGM, Lamarr becomes one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies. She is marketed as the “most beautiful woman in the world.” Her most famous films include: Algiers, Boom Town, Comrade X, Ziegfeld Girls, White Cargo, and Her Highness and the Bellboy. Some of her fellow castmates included stars like Charles Boyer, Clark Gable, and Judy Garland.
However, Lamarr wasn’t fulfilled by living life solely as a beautiful woman and famous actress. As the U.S. got involved in World War II, she decided to put her inventive mind to the test to help out with the war effort.
Her marriage to Mandl, a key player in providing weapons to the Axis powers, proved valuable. The couple often hosted dinner parties that included top-ranking Nazi and fascist officials. Her husband was in close contact with both Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, both of which Lamarr met.
As Mandl’s wife, she gained access to secret intelligence. Understanding the type of military technology the enemy used produced her idea for the frequency hopping signal. Many modern technologies used today, such as WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS, would not be possible without this invention. Because of this, people should mention Hedy Lamarr and WiFi in the same breath.
Lamarr makes a string of other films. However, she received fewer leading roles, and eventually ended her movie-making career in 1958.
The Years Preceding Her Passing
Following her tenure as a Hollywood actress, Lamarr gave a few interviews and even had an autobiography published in her name (although she later sued the ghostwriter for saying most of the book was fiction).
Sadly, the remainder of her life carried a melancholy tune. She had a total of six marriages, lost the relationship with her son, went to jail for shoplifting, never received the compensation she deserved for her key invention, and lived her later years in life as a recluse.
She passed away in 2000. As requested, her family spread her ashes in Vienna, at the foothills of the Northern Alps.
A Deeper Look Into Hedy Lamarr’s Inventions
“Improving things comes naturally to me,” Hedy Lamarr said of herself. Inventing was her method of switching from entertainer to entertained. Her mind was full of infinite possibilities. There was always something to learn, redesign, make excellent, or advance forward.
Redesigning Faster Airplanes During WWII
On the eve of the U.S.’s involvement in WWII, one of Lamarr’s boyfriends, aviation tycoon Howard Hughes, took note of her brilliance. His new partner’s creativity and intelligence astounded him, causing the businessman to introduce her to his aerodynamics team so she could help advance the planes.
Whether working from her movie set trailer or at-home lab, Lamarr fought boredom by engineering the design of faster aircraft. After analyzing the shapes of the world’s quickest fish and birds, she created a more economical, speedier wing design for Hughes.
Hedy Lamarr and WiFi
You might be wondering who invented WiFi. While Lamarr wasn’t technically the WiFi inventor, she conceptualized the type of spread spectrum technology that makes it possible. In 1940, she met self-proclaimed “bad boy” composer George Antheil at a dinner party. The two bonded in conversation after discussing how disturbed Lamarr was over the tragic sinking of the SS City of Benares. Out of the 90 evacuees who were children heading to safety from Britain to Canada, 77 perished due to an enemy torpedo striking the ship.
Lamarr wouldn’t let this chance meeting go to waste—she wanted to help out and serve in the war efforts. She provided Antheil with her phone number by writing it on his windshield in red lipstick.
Shortly after that, the two worked together on a wireless communication system that prevented enemy forces from “jamming” or blocking the signal that guided the Allies’ torpedoes. She called the invention “frequency hopping” since the system caused radio waves from the transmitter and receiver to change to a new one simultaneously. Hopping from various frequencies made it impossible to find and redirect incoming signals so a torpedo would miss its target.
Sadly, the U.S. Navy dismissed Lamarr’s contribution, telling her she’d be more useful selling war bonds. Wanting to help in any way she could, she agreed, raising 25 million dollars.
Fortunately, her invention didn’t go to waste. It was one of the key communication systems used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, we see ripples of frequency hopping in WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Milstar, a network of military communication satellites, also uses the same technology.
Other Notable Inventions
As Lamarr once said, “All creative people want to do the unexpected.” Her inventions speak to this statement. During her lifetime, she came up with ideas for a chair that revolved in and out of the shower, a better traffic light, a tablet that made drinks carbonated, and a fluorescent dog collar.
The Long Road to a Proper Legacy
Even though she lived in an age where women had to choose to be beautiful or intelligent, she bravely chose both. Although she didn’t receive the recognition she deserved for her innovative mind while she was alive, her legacy has shifted in recent years.
In 1997, she and her co-inventor of frequency hopping, Antheil, won the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In addition to this, the film Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) drew attention to her significant contributions to modern technology. Since then, articles from Forbes, the Smithsonian, Biography, PBS, and The New York Times have all helped reshape what people choose to remember and honor about Lamarr.
Defining the “Think Big Anyway” Mentality
There’s a poem by Kent M. Keith that Lamarr loved reading to her children before bedtime called “The Paradoxical Commandments.” After learning about her life, it’s easy to see why Lamarr chose these words to instill into her kids.
The end of the poem reads:
“The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.”
These words were her life philosophy. Even when the world was cruel to her, Lamarr focused on doing good. Her resilience and demand for change and innovation still inspire and motivate people across the globe, even years after her passing.