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Stars and Scholars: Hedy Lamarr

Apr 18, 2011

Hedy Lamarr may not be a familiar name to today's youth, but this star from the 'Golden Age' of film is one of the most extraordinary people in the history of Hollywood. Lamarr was not only an actor, but also a scientist who helped to develop a torpedo guidance system.

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By Douglas Fehlen

Hedy Lamarr in The Conspirators

More Than a Pretty Face

Hedy Lamarr was a major film star who, during a career spanning three decades, performed in films with the likes of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy. Lauded for performances such as Delilah in the 1949 feature Samson and Delilah, Lamarr was also regularly referred to as 'the most beautiful woman in the world.'

This last distinction did not especially please Lamarr, who wanted to be known for much more than her looks. No doubt she would rather have been called 'rocket scientist,' which, in fact, she was. Lamarr was a gifted scientist who invented and patented a guidance system for torpedoes. Working with musician George Antheil, the actor developed a concept called 'frequency hopping.' The system they created for remotely guided weapons made it impossible for enemies to jam radio signals in a way that could send weapons off target.

Helping in the War Effort

The invention and patent were donated to the United States military, which was engaged in World War II. Lamarr had especially good reason to be a patriot; she was Jewish and had fled a Nazi-sympathizing husband in Austria to live in the United States. Her husband, a domineering arms producer, often forced her to accompany him to meetings. It was at one such meeting that she conceived the 'frequency hopping' technique she and Antheil would later develop in the U.S.

Hedy Lamarr in Lady of the Tropics

The purported circumstances of Lamarr's escape from Austria are as spectacular as any film plot. The actor hired a maid that looked like her, eventually drugging her so that she might steal away in the staffers' uniform. Because of the apparent likeness between the two women, Lamarr was not discovered and was able to flee to London. Shortly thereafter she left Europe altogether to pursue a Hollywood career in the U.S. Face Value, a film about Lamarr's remarkable life, is in development and set to see the big screen in the near future.

An Extraordinary Legacy

While Hedy Lamarr certainly made significant contributions to the world of film, it is her achievements in science that perhaps bear the strongest mark of her legacy. Her 'frequency hopping' idea was used in computer chips beginning in the 1950s, and the concept has been applied in developing mobile phones, wifi networks and other modern technologies.

Lamarr received virtually no recognition for her scientific contributions until 1997, three years before her death, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation honored her with the Pioneer Award. Modern commentators have lamented the fact that Lamarr, constricted by gender expectations of the period, wasn't able to completely fulfill the promise of her scientific talent. Were she living today, it's impossible to speculate on the contributions she might have made to our world.

Hedy Lamarr was a pioneer for female actors who also excel at science. Learn about 'Blossom' star Mayim Bialik's career as a neuroscientist.

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