She was one of the most beautiful women ever to appear on screen and she epitomized the glamour of Classic Hollywood. Yet Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to Jewish parents on Nov. 9, 1914 in Vienna, Austria was more than just a pretty face. As a young child she was fascinated by the way things worked. She would take items apart and then reassemble them.
She attended finishing school in Switzerland and as a teenager was discovered by an Austrian film director. Her nude scene in the 1933 Czech film “Ecstacy” brought her world wide notice.
Coming to the United States after meeting studio head Louis B. Mayer in Paris she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that claimed to have ” more stars than there are in the heavens”.
Aviation tycoon Howard Hughes and Hedy shared a love of invention, and maybe a few other things, so much that Hughes gave her an inventing table for use in her trailer while on the set for movies. She made suggestions regarding his aircraft that led Hughes to label her a “genius.”
Films, or many of her six husbands, might have paid the bills, but her first love was researching and inventing. She had an entire room in her home complete with drafting table and research books.
With the German U-boats sinking Allied ships in the Atlantic, Hedy came up with the idea of frequency hopping, or spread spectrum as it is known today. Using a secure radio signal would allow Allied warships to communicate with their torpedoes without the Germans being able to jam the signal.
Her partner, composer George Antheil helped her put it into practical application using his expertise with player piano scrolls and they received U. S. Patent #2292387 on Aug. 11, 1942. Hedy used her maiden and married name (2nd husband) at the time Hedy Kiesler Markey.
The two offered their idea to the U. S. Government, but they weren’t interested. They told Hedy she could do more good by selling U.S. War Bonds, which she did at a fabulous rate. Ironically while having no active interest in their idea the the U. S. Government did classify it as top secret.
After the war Hedy went back to making movies, including probably her best known film, “Samson and Delilah”, opposite Victor Mature in 1949. Unaware of the patent laws and even appeal time for compensation had run out, neither Hedy nor George received any money for their efforts. Hedy said she was a good inventor but a poor businesswoman.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the U. S. applied a form of the invention, cataloguing it as Top Secret so no knowledge or credit was given to either inventors. George had died in 1959 but Hedy was alive and well but clueless that the same government that had said thanks, but no thanks, were now using a form of their patented idea!
In the early 1980’s deregulation allowed many patents, including Hedy’s, to be open to the market for future exploration and technology. Robert Price, researching the history of electronics came across the patent and Hedy’s contribution started to become known.
Journalist Fleming Meeks spoke with Hedy Lamarr in 1990 for an article in Forbes Magazine (May 14, 1990 issue) and had kept audio cassettes tapes of the interview.
The scientific community recognized her work and in1997 she received the Pioneer Award from the Electric Frontier Foundation, an annual prize for “people who have made significant contributions to the empowerment of individuals in using computers”. She also won the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered the Academy Award of Inventing, presented by the Invention Convention of 1997. By this time Hedy had become reclusive, partly due to some poor plastic surgery, and rarely went outside. Her son, Anthony Loder, picked up the award for his mother.
Though she died three years later, in 2000, she had lived to see her accomplishments acknowledged. She was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her “Secret Communication System, U. S. Patent 2292387” in 2014.
The 2017 film “Bombshell” is a 90 minute documentary that tells Hedy’s story from childhood through her death using movie clips, including the nude scene from “Ecstacy”. The researcher Hedy is seen with her patent that is now at the Smithsonian. Hedy is heard on tape discussing her work concerning her research and her children Anthony Loder and Denise Loder speak from the their view of Hedy’s life also.
Though never financially compensated for her scientific efforts, the world did come to know of her research and finally could “get past that face” to appreciate the Hedy that she found paramount.