by Julie Falzon
I’ve always been into old, vintage films. Films of bygone days with their stunning black and white aesthetics and their wonderful heroines. Being a lover of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s especially, I’ve always been attracted to those like a magnet.
One of my favourite actresses was Hedy Lamarr. I used to watch her films and my teenage world was in awe of her beauty, her talent and charisma. She had this fascinating thing about her.
I’ve always been an advocate for women’s rights and equal pay, and a feminist in general, and nothing annoys me more that the stereotype that beautiful women don’t have a brain and are incapable of thinking.
So, imagine my delight when I found out more about her, and how she smashed that stereoptype into pieces.
She was born in November 1914 in Austria as Eva Kiesler, and started her film career in Czechoslovakia where she was married to a nazi sympathiser and arms merchant called Friedrich Mandl. The marriage, as you can guess, proved unsuccessful, Mandl being controlling to Hedy and preventing her from acting and keeping her nearly recluse in their home.
However, during their marriage, she listened and learned about advanced weaponry when he took her to all his business meetings to show her to his colleagues as a trophy.
She managed to flee to Paris and later London before eventually moving to the States after being offered a contract by Louis B. Mayer (head of MGM at the time). She then changed her stage name from Hedwig (Hedy) Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr. Her career in the states started in 1938 and she was presented as “the most beautiful woman in the world” by Mayer.
She made a sensation quite quickly. According to one viewer, when her face first appeared on the screen, « everyone gasped … Lamarr’s beauty literally took one’s breath away. »*
Her career blossomed and she was often cast as as the archetypal glamorous seductress of exotic origin.
However, her off screen life was less glamorous. Hedy was feeling homesick and often lonely, and did not understand the audience fascination for her.
She felt very strongly about World War II and wanted to help as much as possible. She did use her status and fame to hep sell war bonds and did brilliantly, raising up to 7 million dollars in one evening !
Although she was mostly self taught, Hedy had a few hobbies and liked inventing things. Like previously stated, she had some knowledge in weaponry.
She found out that radio-controlled torpedoes, used in naval war, could easily be jammed and set off course. She then thought of creating a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked and formed an unbreakable code.
Along with co-inventor George Anthiel ( a pianist and composer,) she developed this « Secret Communications System » to help combat the Nazis in World War II and gave it as their war effort.
The invention was granted a patent in 1942 under the number 2,292,387, and under the names « Hedy Keisler Markey » and George Antheil for a « Secret Communications System. »
However this was not implemented straight away as it was difficult to do so. It was later used in 1962 on naval ships during the Cuban missile crisis and became widely used in many military applications.
But most importantly, the « spread spectrum » technology that Lamarr helped to invent would galvanize the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations possible**
As often with many women contributions, History seems to have forgotten most of this. Hedy Lamarr received very little praise for her work at the time, and only in the recent years did she receive the recognition she deserves. She has shattered the beautiful woman stereotype and has showed her inventions were way ahead of their time.
In 1997, she and George Anthiel were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. Later in the year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed « The Oscar of Inventing. »
In later years, Hedy became naturalised as an american citizen and published her autobiography (which proved controversial as she admitted that it was vastly fictional and not written by her) . She tried to return to the silver screen but it failed and she lived mostly recluse using her phone to communicate with the outside world. She was known to spend 6 to 7 hours on the phone most days!
She died in January 2000 in Florida. She was 85 years old.