Every time you connect to Wifi or use Bluetooth technology, you can thank Hedy Lamarr, “the world’s most beautiful woman” and one of the stars of the golden age of Hollywood.
She’s also the inventor of the system of communication that allows wireless technology to function today.
Lamarr’s famed beauty inspired female caricatures like Catwoman and Walt Disney’s Snow White. Close friends called her a genius, but the world refused to acknowledge anything other than her beauty.
“It blew me away there was this woman who was brilliant but celebrated for her face and not for her mind,” Alexandra Dean, filmmaker of the documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” told Global Citizen over the phone.
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Sadly, Lamarr is one of many pioneering women in science, technology, math, and engineering whose stories have been nearly lost to history as a result of misogyny.
Dean’s film, which premieres at this year’s 16th annual TriBeCa Film Festival aims to save the story of Lamarr’s genius and to flip the story from the world’s obsession with the star’s looks into an understanding of her creative, quirky, genius.
After researching Lamarr’s life, Dean came across audio recordings from a Forbes interview between Fleming Meeks and Lamarr from 1990, she explained to Global Citizen Those tapes are the anchor of the film, along with interviews from Lamarr’s children, friends, and expert historians on her life.
“The first thing [Meeks] said was ‘I’ve been waiting 25 years for you to call me because I had the tapes.’” Dean said. “Those tapes are the main anchor of Hedy’s story.”
“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” is an inspiration for girls, women, and anyone ever told they cannot invent to continue their pursuit.
So, who was Hedy Lamarr?
The star was born Hedwig Kiesler to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1914. By 1934, she was a former film actress in Austria, married to Friedrich Mandl — an ammunitions manufacturer whom she suspected was selling to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, according to the film. Three years later, disguised as a maid, with her jewelry sewn into her coat, Lamarr escaped Austria the US.
As an actress, before her first marriage, Lamarr appeared nude in “Ecstasy,” a 1933 film that would follow her for decades. This infuriated her husband, but gained her some global fame. It was enough notoriety to catch the attention of Louis Mayer, head of MGM studios as she was leaving Austria.
Mayer offered Lamarr a meager weekly salary to join the studio. Lamarr turned him down, then quickly regretted her decision. So she bought a ticket and joined Mayer on his ship back to the US. By the time the ship reached Los Angeles, Calif., Hedy Kiesler had a new name and one of the highest salary contracts ($3,000 per week by today’s standards) for any starting actress in Hollywood.
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By the 1940s Lamarr was one of the most famous, glamorous women in Hollywood. While women and men alike pondered the secret to her charm and looks, Lamarr kept a secret few people cared about: she was an inventor.
Her ideas ranged from sleek airplane wing designs to fizzing drink tablets so that soldiers in the war could drink Coca Cola.
Her most famed idea, and her only patented invention, is known as “frequency hopping,” a telecommunications technology that uses a code which jumps between different radio wave frequencies. This “hopping” allows for complicated transmission and communication of secure information between devices. Today, it’s the foundation for wireless technologies like Wifi, military communication, GPS, and drone technology. Essentially, it’s a technology that allows the modern world to function as we know it today.
Lamarr developed the idea in her own effort to help end WWII, after she heard that 80 children died when a German torpedo struck the SS City of Benares, a passenger ship crossing from Britain to Canada.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Dean said of the event that fueled Lamarr’s invention. “[After that] she took it into her own hands and did something.”
“She understood that the problem with radio signals was that they could be jammed. But if you could make the signal hop around more or less randomly from radio frequency to radio frequency, then the person at the other end trying to jam the signal won't know where it is," Richard Rhodes, author of “Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” and an interviewee in the film told NPR. "If they try to jam one particular frequency, it might hit that frequency on one of its hops, but it would only be there for a fraction of a second."
She persisted to create her idea, joining with composer and friend, George Antheil, to create such a secret communication system. In 1942, she received a patent from the US government for her invention.
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Lamarr was confident in her ability as an inventor. She considered leaving Hollywood to join the Inventor’s Council in Washington DC.
Lamarr and Antheil sent their patent to the US Navy, hoping their invention could give the US an advantage in the war. Their invention would grant the Navy the ability to communicate with a torpedo after it was deployed, something nobody else in the world knew how to do.
Sadly, few people, especially the Navy, believed she could possess both beauty and brains. The Navy told her to “just sell war bonds.” Others suggested she was a spy who stole the invention from her first husband, according to the film.
And so, her invention sat untouched for nearly a decade.
Then in the 1950s the Navy became interested in developing “sonobuoys,” communication between airplanes and submarines, and turned to Lamarr’s idea to develop the technology.
Normally, Lamarr would have received payment for the technology developed from her patented idea. However, the patent had expired. Lamarr received no payment and little credit for her brilliant idea.
“She had this terrifying experience of being an enemy alien while trying to fight for her country...and you can’t get more current than that,” Dean said of the parallels in Lamarr’s story and the political refugee climate today.
What can we learn from Hedy Lamarr?
All her life, Lamarr was stuck in misogynistic and anti-immigrant pitfalls: when she was making money for Hollywood, showing off her beauty, she was embraced as an immigrant, but when she tried to move outside the sphere of what society deemed acceptable she was shunned.
“We need to maintain a real faith in ourselves and recognize the beauty of our own mind and personality in the world,” Dean said.
For Lamarr, her beauty helped her escape and survive WWII, remarry, several times, and have three children. Yet it also held her back from being taken seriously as an inventor.
“It’s really important that women need to be able to express themselves in the way they look. Nobody should be able to take that away… the problem is when the world defines that as a dominant value,” Dean said.
However, society’s restrictions didn’t stop Lamarr, and that is the ultimate lesson to be learned from the life of Hedy Lamarr.
“For Hedy her power was very much in her appearance but what I love about her is that didn’t stop her from going home at night and inventing for the pure joy of it, and the pure need of it,” Dean said.
The film ends with Lamarr reading a poem by Dr. Kent M Keith, made famous by Mother Teresa, that Lamarr read to her children about the need to “do it anyway.”
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway....What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway,” Lamarr read.