“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” said actress turned inventor, Hedy Lamarr, (1914-2000) whose birthday we celebrate today.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914 in Vienna Austria. She later fled to the United States after her marriage to an Austrian munitions manufacturer and arms dealer to the Nazis ended. Upon arriving in Hollywood, she was signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer under the name, Hedy Lamarr and quickly became a box-office sensation with the release of Algiers, co-starring Charles Boyer.
Over the course of her career, Lamarr starred in notable films, such as Lady of the Tropics (1939), Boom Town (1940) alongside Clark Gable, Tortilla Flat (1942), Samson and Delilah (1949) and more. However, it’s her role as inventor that makes her a notable and fascinating woman.
In 1942, at the peak of her career and at the height of the Nazi regime, Lamarr turned her attention to the war effort. She yearned to join the National Inventors Council (NIC), but was turned down by its members after being told that she would better serve the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. This meant flirting with and kissing a sailor named Eddie Rhodes during bond rallys. Lamarr soon grew weary of parading herself in such a way and was anxious to prove that she was much more than her nickname, “the most beautiful woman in films.”
Later that same year, Lamarr partnered with composer George Antheil, to contribute to the war effort in a more meaningful way. Using the knowledge gained from her arms-dealing first husband and by incorporating a method similar to the way a piano roll works, Lamarr and Antheil designed a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedoes. The invention called “The Secret Communication System” would hop frequencies while continuously changing the radio signals sent to the torpedoes to prevent the Nazis from detecting messages.
The team’s invention was patented in August of 1942, but its enormous significance wasn’t realized until decades later. Following the arrival of the transistor and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the team’s design was finally adopted by the US Navy. Lamarr and Antheil’s invention is an important element behind today’s spread-spectrum communication technology, such as modern CDMA, Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth technology.
In 1997, Lamarr and her partner were publicly recognized for their invention, when they received the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. Later that same year, Lamarr became the first woman to win the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award – “The Oscars” of inventing. Eventually their work landed them in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
In the year 2016, we are still struggling to encourage women to show interest in technology, men seem to dominate the tech industry and women engineers are a relative rarity. So, for a woman, especially an actress, to show interest back in the 1940s was virtually unheard of, if anything it was a joke. However, Hedy Lamarr, with her striking beauty, powerful screen presence and game-changing invention, proved to the world that beauty and brains are not mutually exclusive – women in tech is no joke.