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Hedy Lamarr - Hollywood Beauty and Mother of Wi-Fi

Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr was often called "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World", but being a star wasn't her only forte!

Hedy starred in classic 40s films such as Samson and Delilah and Ziegfeld Girl, but she was also an incredible genius who invented and pioneered the groundwork for modern-day Wi-Fi and wireless communications to be created - she was so much more than just a pretty face!

But how did Hedy go from private school girl in Vienna to star studded actress in Hollywood?

Hedy Lamarr

 

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1914 to a Jewish family. Being the only child of her family, Hedy received bountiful amounts of love and attention from her mother Gertrud (a concert pianist) and father Emil Kiesler (a bank director). As Hedy was an only child, her father spent a lot of time with Hedy when she was young and would encourage her to be open-minded about the world around her, as well as inspiring her as they talked about how machines and technologies worked and the processes behind them. These discussions inspired Hedy as at the young age of 5 she was able to completely dismantle and reassemble her music box to investigate how the mechanisms inside worked.

Keen to expand Hedy's knowledge and appreciation for the arts as well as science, her parents enrolled Hedy to a private school. She learnt ballet, how to play the piano, as well different science topics - both of her parents influence clearly helped mould her into an artistic innovator!

Hedy Lamarr's mother, Gertrud

Hedy's mother, Gertrud

Unfortunately, as was the case with many women in the 1900's, Hedy's mind was often overshadowed by her extraordinary beauty; but she knew how to take advantage of this.

Whilst in school in Vienna she managed to get a position as a script girl and made her way up to playing an extra in Money on the Street, a romantic comedy which would be Hedy's screen debut. During her time in Vienna, producer Max Reinhardt stumbled across Hedy, who was only 16 at the time, and helped kickstart her acting career. Two years later at aged 18 Hedy would become somewhat infamous for her role in the controversial erotic romance film Ecstasy.

With increasing popularity as an actress it's no surprise that Hedy gained many adoring fans including her future husband, Fritz Mandl, an Austrian military arms merchant and munitions manufacturer. Many fans and admirers sent roses to Hedy's dressing room in hopes of a chance of meeting her, but she often refused most of them including Fritz.

 

Hedy Lamarr's first husband, Fritz Mandl
Hedy's first husband, Fritz Mandl

This didn't dishearten Fritz though, as he was persistent in his advances and getting to know Hedy better. Eventually he won Hedy's affections, maybe due to his charming personality or maybe due to his reputation of being the third richest man in Austria! They married on the 10th August 1933 when Hedy was aged 18, and Fritz aged 33. Perhaps the groundwork for a toxic relationship was already there from the get-go, considering Fritz's obsession with Hedy before their marriage.

Fritz often forced Hedy to play the role of trophy wife by hosting parties for his friends and business parties in their home, with many of these individuals having connections to the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and the Nazi Party. Despite this, Hedy again made the most of her situation by listening to conversations between her husband and scientists and inventors concerning the latest military technology - all of which she took on board and would use later in her life.

The marriage was short-lived as Fritz became increasingly controlling and restrictive to the point where he wouldn't allow Hedy to pursue her acting career or even leave their castle home. In her autobiography "Ecstasy and Me" which was first published in 1966, Hedy wrote:

"I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife. …He was the absolute monarch in his marriage. …I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded - and imprisoned- having no mind, no life of its own."

After 4 years of enduring her marriage, Hedy decided enough was enough. In 1937 she had convinced her husband that she absolutely needed to wear every single piece of her jewellery to a dinner party, then quickly disguised herself as a maid before fleeing to Paris and then to London!

Using her jewellery as financial support, Hedy explored new opportunities in her freedom in London. She went on to meet a talent scout from MGM Studios, Louis B. Mayer, and managed to impress him enough to secure her way straight to Hollywood on a $500 a week contract - about $9,680 in today's money!

A condition of Louis' offer was that Hedy should change her name, as Hedwig Kiesler had become too associated with "the Ecstasy lady" reputation which could ultimately stop her Hollywood career before it even started. Hedy did eventually agree to change her name and Louis coined the name Hedy Lamarr by adapting her first name and choosing the surname of a silent film star, Barbra La Marr, and thus "the world's most beautiful woman" would soon make her Hollywood debut.

Hedy Lamarr Ecstasy Film Poster

Poster for Ecstasy

Hollywood was mesmerised by the grace, beauty, and foreign accent that Hedy showed on screen. In no time at all she was in a variety of social circles and was making influential connections, one being Howard Hughes who would be the catalyst for getting the scientific cogs turning again in Hedy's head.

Howard was known during his lifetime to one of the most influential and financially successful individuals in the world. He had dabbled in many industries, including the highly profitable aeroplane manufacturing business. No doubt Howard quickly captured Hedy's interest and desire for innovation, as Howard was determined to help her inventive mind flourish.

 

The pair would often visit Howard's aeroplane factories so that Hedy could see first-hand how the machines were made, and even introduced her to the engineers and scientists behind the processes. Hedy even gave Howard advice on the design of his aeroplanes to be more streamlined. After researching the fastest fish and birds Hedy produced a detailed sketch for Howard on how this new design could provide much need innovation for his planes.

As the Second World War began raging across the pond, George Antheil, Hedy's friend and fellow inventor, recalled:

"Hedy said she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state. She said that she knew a good deal about munitions and various secret weapons... and that she was thinking of seriously quitting MGM and going to Washington D.C. to offer her services to the newly established Inventors' Council."

Finally, Hedy could use the knowledge she had retained from all those years ago from Fritz and put them to use to help the US in the war effort!

Hedy had knowledge on how radio-controlled torpedoes operated, and she knew that they could easily be jammed and set off course from their target. With the help of George Antheil, the pair drafted a design for a system that used frequency-hopping signals that couldn't be tracked or jammed which could then throw enemy torpedoes completely off target.

Hedy Lamarrr War Effort

 Her invention was awarded a patent under US Patent 2,292,387 in August 1942. Unfortunately, the technology was claimed to be too difficult for the US Navy to implement, and the US military was also not fond of taking external ideas which didn't originate from inside the military. She was told by the National Inventors Council "to serve her country better by using her fame and a pretty face" instead. It's so disappointing to see that Hedy and George's revolutionary technology wasn't utilised, who knows what possible advancements we could have made sooner!

 

Hedy Lamarr Frequency Hopping Patent

 

The rejection of her frequency-hopping design didn't stop Hedy though, as she moved instead to use her fame and celebrity status to sell war bonds to the American public in an attempt to help the war effort - she still wasn't prepared to sit down and do nothing and ended up raising $25 million (around $340 million today) for the US military!

Hedy continued her acting career throughout the war, taking on iconic roles until 1958. Her ideas and inventions had unfortunately been brushed under the rug and forgotten about. It would take almost 55 years for her work to receive recognition for her invention where she was honoured with the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award, as well as being the first woman to receive the Invention Convention's BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, known also as the "Oscars of Inventing".

Although Hedy passed away in January 2000, her technology would be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 as it helped to create the groundwork for which modern-day wireless communications developed, which led to her being known as "The Mother of Wi-Fi".

So next time you use your phone, or watch the television, just remember that Hedy Lamarr helped pave the way for us to enjoy such luxuries!

Hedy Lamarr Invention

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