Yesterday, the world celebrated Hedy Lamarr’s 100th birthday. Her face and her success were all over Twitter and yet, I had no idea who she was. With a bit of digging I discovered an incredibly curious, inspiring and compelling woman. The kind of woman too few people have heard of…
Born in Vienna, Austria in 1914, Hedy (née Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) kicked off her acting career at the age of 18 in the controversial but popular Czech film, Ecstasy. After considerable success in European Cinema, Hedy was invited to Hollywood by MGM’s studio head, Louis B. Mayer. Between the 1930’s and 1940’s Hedy rose to fame, starring in numerous Hollywood blockbusters including Boom Town, White Cargo and Ziegfiled Girl. But it wasn’t until after she left MGM, in 1945, that she snagged her biggest role, Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (the highest grossing film of 1949).
After the outbreak of WW2, Hedy was keen to find a way to help the cause. When she met composer, George Antheil, in Hollywood (he was her neighbor) and discovered that he was experimenting with audio controls for musical instruments, they began discussing the risks of radio-controlled torpedoes. The torpedoes being used during WW2 could easily go off course when their signals were jammed by broadcasting interference. Together, George and Hedy worked to develop the concept of Frequency Hopping – a method of encrypting a control signal by quickly switching carrier among many frequency channels. In 1942, they were granted a patent for their invention, but their technology was not actually put to use by the U.S. Government until the 1962 blockade of Cuba. The idea of frequency hopping serves as a foundation for Spread-Spectrum Communication technology used in GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices. Hedy has been honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and was inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame this year. Despite her efforts, she was not able to join the National Inventors Council (she was instead told to use her fame to sell war bonds). She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Hedy was married six times and had three children. She credited her early exposure to business and applied science to her first husband, munition manufacturer, Friedrich Mandl (they separated before she moved to Hollywood). Heddy’s later years were complicated (she struggled with addictions to plastic surgery and pills) and her acting career faded away after the 1950’s. She released an auto-biography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life As A Woman, in 1966. There was controversy around the book’s content and the liberties ghost writer, Leo Guild, took with her story.
Hedy passed away on January 19th, 2000. She remains a huge inspiration for women in science and technology. She actively fought the media’s obsession with her beauty, often requesting that they consider her mind and talents first.
Learn a bit more about “the most beautiful face in film” by listening to NPR’s story on her.