1940s Hollywood Starlet Defeated the Nazis and Developed WiFi
Austro-American actress Hedy Lamarr on the set of Samson and Delilah. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
It might be easy to dismiss the beautiful actresses during the Golden Age of Hollywood as a bunch of pretty faces but for at least one of the glamorous starlets, her pretty face was hiding a highly intelligent and inventive mind. In fact, an invention credited to the stunningly beautiful actress, Hedy Lamarr, helped to defeat the Nazis during World War II and laid the groundwork for today’s wireless communications.
Her First Husband Aided the Nazis
The Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr began acting as a teenager and appeared in the 1933 Czech film, Ecstacy, known as the first non-pornographic film to feature nude scenes. Although the motion picture was somewhat controversial, Lamarr gained international attention for scenes showing her swimming in the nude and running through the countryside sans clothing. During this time, the young actress was married to a wealthy munitions factory owner, Fritz Mandl, who was selling arms to the Nazis. The marriage was an unhappy one and Lamarr fled to Paris and then to the United States and filed for divorce. She signed with MGM and became an instant Hollywood star.
Lamarr Became Hollywood’s Typecast Seductress
Beautiful, exotic, and sexy, Lamarr was cast again and again in roles that portrayed her as the mysterious, foreign-born seductress. Among her films were Lady of the Tropics, Algiers, Boom Town, Samson and Delilah, and Comrade X. Her stunning good looks caught the attention of the American public who clamored for more Hedy Lamarr films. She was considered the most beautiful actress of her day and a highly sought-after leading lady. But there was much more to Hedy Lamarr than everyone realized.
Lamarr was a Wartime Secret Weapon
When she wasn’t starring on the big screen, Lamarr was a tinkerer. She loved inventing new machines and technologies. Lamarr had an idea for a way to keep the enemy from intercepting wartime transmissions. Called “frequency hopping”, Lamarr’s invention allowed for the broadcaster and receiver of transmissions to continuously jump around from one radio frequency to another, in unison with each other, so that a third party, or the enemy, could not intercept the communication or jam the frequency, and thus interrupting the launching of torpedoes from ships or aircraft. Lamarr received a patent for her invention in August of 1942 and promptly donated it to the United States military that used it to help defeat the Nazis.
Hedy Lamarr Invented Wifi
Seriously! Hedy Lamarr, together with her business partner, George Antheil, a renowned composer, created what was referred to as a “secret communication system” that would use radio signals in the airways to guide bombs and torpedoes. This technology became the basis for WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth…all of which revolutionized the way we communicate and launched the mobile age.
Hedy Lamarr Helped Howard Hughes Design Airplanes
Millionaire aviator and eccentric Howard Hughes made it his business to befriend Hollywood movers and shakers, and Hedy Lamarr fit the bill. The two were linked romantically for a time, though some contend that their relationship was not strictly romantic. The two were drawn together by their mutual love of inventing. Lamarr observed Hughes’ aircraft designs and was frustrated. The planes were too slow, she believed. She blamed the design of Hughes’ airplanes, noting that they were not as aerodynamically built as they could be to reduce drag and increase lift. She studied the movement of birds to get ideas about aerodynamics and then watched how quick-moving fish darted through the water. Based on her observations of both birds and fish, Lamarr presented Hughes with a streamlined design for his aircraft that greatly increased the plane’s speed and efficiency.
An Award Winning Actress
Although Hedy Lamarr was nominated for an award for her role in the 1949 film, Samson and Delilah, her biggest awards she earned were from her inventions. Her work was so groundbreaking that the widespread application of it wasn’t realized until years later. In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation honored her achievements in the field of wireless communications with its coveted Pioneer Award. Also that year, Lamarr was the first woman to be presented with a Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, one of the highest honors given to inventors.
Lamarr’s Personal Life was a Mess
Hedy Lamarr’s marriage to the Austrian arms manufacturer was the first in a string of marriages – six in all – that all ended in divorce. Her last marriage was to her own divorce lawyer, Lewis J. Boies, but that union, too, ended in divorce. She bore two children, Anthony and Denise, with her third husband, John Loder, to whom she was married for three years. She had adopted a child, James, during her second marriage, to Gene Markey which also lasted only three years. Lamarr claimed that James was not related to her, but it was later discovered that he was, in fact, her biological child that she bore out of wedlock prior to her marriage to Markey. And, to make the story even stranger, the father of James was none other than Loder, Lamarr’s third husband.
A Typical Reclusive Starlet
The older she got, the more reclusive Hedy Lamarr became. She spent her final years in virtual isolation from the public that once so adored her. She passed away from heart disease in her Florida home on January 19, 2000, at the age of 85. She leaves behind not only an archive of films from Hollywood’s Golden Age but inventions that changed the world.
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