Hedy Lamarr, Actress and Inventor

Hedy Lamarr was a woman perpetually ahead of her time. She shocked the world with some racy roles in the 1930s, and a decade later, invented a method of frequency transmission used today to provide secure communications for wireless and cell phone networks.

Hedy Lamarr’s Early Days

Although accounts vary on what year Hedy Lamarr was born—the star claimed 1915, records indicate 1913 and others say 1914—there is no question she came into this world on November 9. Named Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler by her well-to-do parents, as a young woman Lamarr lived in near-isolation in her palatial Vienna home. She was privately tutored instead of going to school.

When Lamarr was 16, she enrolled in famous Austrian director Max Reinhardt’s acting school in Berlin. She found work as a script girl on the sets of his movies and soon earned speaking roles. In 1931, she starred in “Man Braucht Kein Geld,” one of five German movies she filmed in her teens.

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Lamarr’s Notable Accomplishments

Already known as “the most beautiful woman in Europe,” Lamarr had no trouble landing the role of a young wife in the 1933 Czech film, “Ecstasy.” Her controversial performance brought her notoriety on the world stage. “Ecstasy” was the first major film to feature explicit scenes and was banned around the world.

The same year “Ecstasy” was released, Lamarr married an older man, Fritz Mandl, a disreputable arms manufacturer who supplied weapons to the Nazis. Mandl, the first of Lamarr’s six husbands, was fiercely possessive and in addition to keeping her mostly locked up at home for the four years of their marriage, he attempted to purchase all copies of her controversial film. Stories vary on the exact circumstances, but in 1937, she escaped from her husband and booked passage to America.

She brainstormed ideas for a screen name with MGM founder Louis B. Mayer and they agreed on the surname Lamarr—an adaptation of “La Mar” (the sea) in tribute to silent film star Barbara LaMarr. Once in Hollywood, her first role was in 1938’s “Algiers,” for United Artists. She went on to star in seven films, including “Tortilla Flat” and “Ziegfield Girl” over the next three years.

Somewhere along the way, Lamarr earned the reputation as a difficult-to-work-with diva. She was rumored to have turned down the starring role in “Casablanca,” and definitely rejected the lead in “Gaslight,” two roles which made Ingrid Bergman a star.

For the next decade, Lamarr’s career foundered; she left MGM and starred in two movies from her own production company, but she found little other work. In 1949, Cecil B. DeMille gave her a part in “Samson and Delilah,” which was the top-grossing film for the year and by far her biggest commercial success. It was also among her last movies. Lamarr occasionally appeared on screen over the ensuing years, but by the end of the 1950s she had faded into obscurity and was rarely seen in public.

The Woman and her Work

The Rest of the Story

During her marriage to Mandl, Lamarr had received a thorough grounding in weapons technology. By the time she got to America, she was coming up with her own inventions. During the summer of 1940, she approached neighbor and avant-garde composer George Antheil and they realized they both had a passion for invention.

Lamarr sought Antheil’s help refining an idea she had for torpedo guidance systems. Current radio communications could be intercepted or jammed, making them inadequate for control of a weapon. She envisioned a method of rapidly changing the frequency of broadcast and reception of the signal. Antheil lent some player piano technology to the project and the pair created a prototype for the world’s first frequency-hopping communications device.

Lamarr and Antheil successfully patented their invention, but the Navy rejected the technology, calling it unwieldy. The patent had expired by the time engineers at the Sylvania Electronic Systems Division revisited the concept in 1957. The Navy used this anti-jamming technology during the 1962 blockage of Cuba. For two decades, spread-spectrum communications, as it came to be known, was solely the province of the military. In the 1980s, once the technology was declassified, it was picked up as a method to ensure privacy for cell phone users. It has enabled the wireless communications revolution by rendering the spectrum of radio frequencies nearly infinite, allowing people to share frequencies without sharing information. Lamarr never earned any money for her invention; in later years she was given an award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Germany honored her with holding its Inventor’s Day on her birthday.

Lamarr died in Altamonte Springs, Florida, on January 19, 2000, at the age of 86.

This article was originally written by Jennifer Ferris; it was updated November 8, 2017.