Hedy Lamarr: film star or scientist?
Image credit: Getty Images
A new film about Hedy Lamarr claims that behind the iconic celebrity was a woman who struggled to be recognised as a scientist.
Known as the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ and a Hollywood film star, she was cast by Louis B. Meyer and Cecil B DeMille. She married seven times and had even more lovers, including actor Spencer Tracy and JFK before – she insisted – he was President. Disney’s Snow White and Cat Woman were both based on her iconic dark-haired, pale-skinned look. But Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) didn’t want to be celebrated for her acting, nor her appearance. She wanted to be called an inventor and scientist.
The reinvention of this legendary beauty is being led by Alexandra Dean, a former technology journalist for Bloomberg TV. Dean was looking for role models for women in technology and engineering when she stumbled across Lamarr’s lesser-known story. “The number of women with jobs in science, technology, engineering and math is declining, despite the fact that schools are trying to encourage more girls to join those growing fields,” says Dean. “I thought – bingo – here is the role model everyone thinks doesn’t exist. And she’s a movie star!”
With backing from Hollywood actor Susan Sarandon, Dean set about turning Hedy Lamarr into a star, not of the Hollywood screen, but of science. Lamarr’s discovery of frequency hopping, Dean argued, was a crucial founding element in the later development of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Today’s young, aspiring, ambitious women scientists needed to know this, Dean believed. The result is her feature-length documentary, ‘Bombshell. The Hedy Lamarr Story’, released this month.
Lamarr became interested in invention as a child growing up in pre-World War II Austria, inspired by her father, an amateur engineer. She never gave up an ambition to invent, continually scribbling diagrams and charts in her notebooks. When, in her early 20s, she left for America and took up an acting career, she continued to have a mini-laboratory set up at home and insisted there was a full chemistry set, including rows of test tubes, in her trailer while filming.
Science provided her with stability, a hobby that stayed with her while everyone else and everything else left. While her private life was tumultuous and in the glare of the spotlight, her inventions continued in secret. She drew inspiration from what was around her at home. According to her biographer Richard Rhodes, who is interviewed in the documentary, Lamarr was inspired by the Philco Radio Company’s ‘Magic Box’ advertisement that appeared in 1939. The Magic Box was an early remote control, allowing the listener to change radio channels wirelessly. Lamarr filled her notebooks with sketches of how this new gadget worked. She saw that this same frequency hopping could be applied to secure radio communications, as no one would be able to follow moving between frequencies so swiftly and often.
Both Dean and Rhodes believe Lamarr’s beauty was a barrier to her inventions being given proper consideration. Yet we can be forgiven for not taking this nascent scientist seriously. When she met George Antheil – an avant-garde composer – at a party, she was immediately drawn to his inventive mind and the possibility of collaborating with him. Rather than putting in a research paper to him, she wrote her phone number on his car windscreen in lipstick.
It worked. Antheil and Lamarr were both patriots – Hedy was from Vienna, and her background was Jewish. Antheil’s younger brother was the first US citizen to be killed in the war when his civilian plane was shot down. Using his knowledge of how piano rolls could activate piano keys, Lamarr convinced Antheil that a similar system could also be employed to activate radio frequencies. Together they devised a system of hopping between 88 frequencies, ensuring any radio communications could be kept secret.
In 1941, the two amateur scientists presented their invention to the newly formed Inventors’ Council, made up of eminent engineers. The Council issued a full patent, which Lamarr donated to them and which was made freely available to the US Navy. Yet the Navy rejected it as ridiculous, placed it in a folder marked ‘Top Secret’ – and it disappeared. Rhodes said to the filmmakers: “The Navy told her – you’ll be helping the War a lot more, little lady, if you get out and sell war bonds rather than sit around trying to invent new kinds of torpedoes. Leave that to the experts.”
She did, setting out on an exhaustive war bond tour around the States, entertaining the troops and selling kisses to soldiers. She was very good at that, too, raising $25m of bonds.
However, her war effort wasn’t repaid. In 1942, the US government seized her patent as the property of an ‘alien’. Lamarr was not yet a US citizen and retained a strong accent; she had arrived in the States not speaking a word of English. “I didn’t understand,” she said later in life. “They use me for selling bonds – then I’m not an alien. And when I invent something for this country, I am an alien.”
No one was taking Lamarr seriously. Yet behind the on-camera smiles, she refused to surrender. She saw her discovery of the uses for frequency hopping as her ticket to being recognised as a scientist and wouldn’t give up on that hope. In 1969, aged 55, she wrote to a friend in the Navy asking what had happened to her patent. She discovered it had expired 10 years earlier in 1959, when the Navy thought it was quite a useful invention after all, and employed it during the Cuban Missile Crisis a few years later. Lamarr never got paid.
The world may have been blinded by her beauty. Yet in the absence of anyone else, why didn’t Hedy herself put the record straight? Dean says: “She did try to tell the press. But every time the story was misreported in a tone she found off-putting: ‘How can this actress have such a masculine hobby?’”
In the last years of Lamarr’s life she became a recluse, wasted by drugs and ravaged by excessive plastic surgery, but that inventiveness never left her, claims Dean. “She became quite addled by drugs by this time so her inventions became smaller – fluorescent dog collars so you could see your pet in the dark; things to help elderly people to get out of bath tubs; how to keep track of your remote by using fluorescent beads.”
Imagine the distressed and lonely Lamarr, losing her beauty, alone with her notebooks, scribbling and innovating away. Science remained her crutch and her hope.
Rhodes sees Lamarr not only as a victim of her looks, but also of her time. “In a different era, she might well have become a scientist,” he says, but Dean is not so sure the barriers that Lamarr faced have all been dismantled. She says when she took the idea of the film to scientists, to garner their input and opinions, they weren’t interested in Lamarr’s story. “When I started to research, the scientists laughed at me,” she says.
Yet 18 years after her death, Lamarr might still be recognised beyond her film credits. Her son Anthony Loder has kept all her sketchbooks and patent papers neatly stored in hundreds of plastic boxes in his home. The Smithsonian is considering taking them into their collection. As his mother, the most beautiful woman in the world, said, “I have an inventive mind. I know what I did.”
‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ is in cinemas now