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Hedy Lamarr: Biography & Inventions

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Hedy Lamarr was one of the most famous actresses of the 1930s and 1940s. She wasn't just another pretty face, though. The technology she invented would become the basis of today's cell phones and other wireless technology.

An Austrian goes to Hollywood

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1913, in Vienna, Austria. As a teenager she was discovered by a film director, but she didn't gain international notice until 1933 when she appeared in the Czech film Ecstasy. This was that same year that the 18 year old Hedy (then still known as Hedy Kiesler) married 33 year old Friedrich Mandl.

Hedy Lamarr
lamarr

The marriage was not a happy one. Mandl had business ties to both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and Lamarr later wrote that both men attended parties in their home. Despite hampering his wife's career by refusing to allow her to act, Mandl did give her one advantage. By accompanying him to his business meetings, Lamarr was introduced to military technology. Lamarr would use these meetings to her advantage later in her life.

After divorcing Mandl, Lamarr went to Paris where she met Louis B. Mayer, one of the founders of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which would later become MGM Studios. He signed her to a contract and soon she was off to Hollywood, now known as Hedy Lamarr. Her first Hollywood film, Algiers, came out in 1938. The next year she starred in Lady of the Tropics.

Films of the Forties

Lamarr's looks won her quite a few roles in the 1940s. She would star opposite of many of Hollwood's leading men: 1940's Boom Town was opposite Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and 1942's Tortilla Flat was also with Tracy. She also had a role in Samson and Delilah, a big movie for 1949 that ended up winning Oscars for the costumes and lavish sets.

Samson and Delilah
film

Secret Communications System

After the United States entered World War II in 1941, everyone felt they should contribute to the war effort, including Lamarr. She didn't just want to sell war bonds and tour with the USO, though.

Together with composer, author, and inventor George Antheil, she researched radio-controlled torpedoes. These torpedoes could be easily jammed by broadcasting interference. Lamarr remembered what she had learned in her meetings with Mandl, and she and Antheil began to experiment with frequency-hopping technology.

The two referred to their project as the Secret Communications System. Their device could change radio frequencies, which would help keep the enemy from decoding messages. The device was designed to switch radio signals in short bursts among 88 frequencies in order to prevent the enemy from jamming the signals. They were granted a patent in 1942, but their invention was never used in World War II.

Front page of Patent
patent

Faltering Film Star

Lamarr's acting career began to wane during the 1950s. She became an American citizen in 1953, and her last film was in 1958. She published her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, in 1966. She was also arrested in 1966 (and again later in 1991) for shoplifting, but she was never convicted.

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