The 1940s Hollywood Actress Who Invented Technology for WiFi

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Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Hedy Lamarr is widely remembered for her beauty, but today a newly released documentary shines a light on her brilliant mind

Hedy Lamarr was a Golden Age-era actress, billed throughout Hollywood as the most beautiful woman in the world in the 1940s and 50s, and starring in many blockbuster films signed with MGM. Known for playing striking leading ladies in her films, Lamarr took on roles in Boom Town opposite Clark Gable in 1940, Ziegfeld Girl alongside Lana Turner and Judy Garland in 1941, and as the titular Delilah in her most renowned film, Samson and Delilah (1949). But Lamarr returns to the spotlight in 2017 – 17 years after her death aged 85 – not because of her acting career, but due to her fierce intelligence and analytical mind. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is a newly released documentary, directed by Alexandra Dean, that spotlights Lamarr’s work as an inventor. Through previously unheard recordings of Lamarr made in 1990 with journalist Fleming Meeks, Bombshell reveals this side of Lamarr’s life – the facet of her character which Howard Hughes called genius. “Analysis gave me great freedom of emotions and fantastic confidence,” Lamarr once said of her passion for inventing and technology. “I felt I had served my time as a puppet.”  

Defining Features

While her beauty and acting prowess meant that Lamarr was successful in Hollywood, her boredom with being typecast outgrew any enjoyment of her achievements in film. It seems that Lamarr was never one to settle for predictable decisions in life: she gained notoriety aged just 18 when she starred in Ecstasy, portraying an unhappily married young woman who takes a lover. The role saw her both appear naked and feign orgasm on screen, two things that were unheard of in films in the early 1930s. It was leaving her first husband, a wealthy Austrian arms merchant, for Paris in 1937 (she supposedly tricked him into allowing her to wear all of her jewellery to dinner so she could flee afterwards) that launched Lamarr’s acting career, as she was discovered by Louis B. Mayer of MGM. With her dark hair, perfect features and reputation that preceded her (thanks to Ecstasy), Lamarr beguiled Hollywood.    

Seminal Moments

Her passion for inventing was a private aspect of Lamarr’s life. During the Second World War she wanted to contribute to the effort, and developed with her friend George Antheil a technology they labelled the ‘Secret Communications System’ – a frequency hopping signal which would evade the interception of torpedoes by enemy forces. Though the system was not made use of during the war, it has since become a key aspect of modern wifi and bluetooth technologies. It was not until 1997 – despite the fact that their system had been put to use on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis – that Antheil and Lamarr received accolades for their technology, and in 2014 the duo were made members of the US’ National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Lamarr’s talent for inventing was widely unknown – overshadowed by her acting career and the public’s preoccupation with her look – though during her relationship with Howard Hughes it was actively indulged. Hughes encouraged Lamarr to go to his engineers with her ideas, and she came up with ways of rendering his planes more efficient and faster in flight; hence Hughes rightly dubbing her a genius.

She’s an AnOther Woman Because…

Lamarr was a misunderstood character during her life, seemingly never able to escape being defined by her beauty alone. She was headstrong, possessed of a brilliant mind and worked tirelessly on developing new technologies, which to her was simply a way of curing her boredom with Hollywood. Various instances throughout her life did damage to her public image – a 1966 ‘autobiography’, Ecstasy and Me, written by a ghostwriter whom she sued, and a film by Andy Warhol in the same year which took her shoplifting and penchant for plastic surgery as its subject – meaning that her success is often forgotten. With Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, her extraordinary life is brought to the fore. Understanding of the ephemeral nature of her chosen industry, Lamarr once stated: “Films have a certain place in a certain time period. Technology is forever.” And evidently, she was right.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is released in the US today.