How Hollywood Screen Siren Hedy Lamarr Helped Pioneer WiFi and GPS

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr, shown here in a publicity still for the 1940 film "Comrade X," was also a brilliant inventor. MGM/Clarence Bull/Wikimedia Commons/HowStuffWorks

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

In two short sentences, famed actress Hedy Lamarr managed to call gender stereotypes, beauty ideals and Hollywood artifice into question, using a hint of humor to make meaningful social commentary. In a sense, this succinct soundbite offers more insight into Lamarr's life and legacy than any headshot or publicity photo ever could, but understanding the context of the film star's words provides even more meaning to the boundary-breaking successes and unexpected influence she continues to have, two decades after her death.


Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler Nov. 9, 1914, the Austria native took an early interest in the performing arts, but seemed equally enchanted with science and engineering. "Hedy Lamarr grew up in a wealthy middle-class family in Vienna where she learned classical piano and enjoyed ballet, opera and chemistry," says Alexandra Dean, director of the documentary, "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story," via email. "She loved tinkering with her gadgets and took apart her music box and smashed a light bulb to see how it worked."

By the time she was a teenager, Lamarr was turning heads for her stunning physical beauty — something that would both serve her and arguably hinder her success. "She became an actress because she thought it would be more fun than school, so she forged a note from her mother allowing her 10 hours away from classes and she went to her first audition," Dean says. At 17 years old, Lamarr scored her first film role in a German project called "Geld auf der Strase." She continued acting in European productions and in 1932, landed a controversial role in the scandalous-for-the-era film, "Exstase."

"She was too beautiful for her own good," Vincent Brook, author and UCLA media studies lecturer, says via email. "Her glamour queen, sex goddess persona kept her from being seen for the brilliant, complex person that she was."

The Heavenly Body, Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr starred in 1944's "The Heavenly Body."
Wikimedia Commons

Lamarr wed Austrian munitions dealer, Fritz Mandl, in 1933, but the marriage didn't last long. She later said of the union, "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." During their marriage, Lamarr was often spotted on Mandl's arm as he kept company with friends and business partners, many of whom had alleged ties to the Nazi party.

By 1937, Lamarr had had enough and fled her marriage, her former life and all ties to Austria. She headed to London, and soon signed a contract with Hollywood's Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio under the name Hedy Lamarr. Her first American film, "Algiers," kicked her career into high gear, and soon Lamarr was a household name.

"The sexist double-standard was reversed for Lamarr in other ways," Brook says. "Compared to German-accented male actors in Hollywood, who were relegated in the 1940s to supporting roles, mostly as Nazis, she and Marlene Dietrich, given their exotic/erotic allure, retained their marquee value."


World War II and Frequency Hopping

In the early years of her newfound fame, Lamarr dated some of Hollywood's most famous and infamous men, including Howard Hughes. The pilot and businessman reportedly took Lamarr along to tour airplane factories and asked for Lamarr's input on aviation design and theory. But it wasn't until 1942 that Lamarr's innovative thinking inspired an unprecedented invention. In collaboration with composer George Antheil, Lamarr came up with an electronic device that minimized the jamming of radio signals.

"During World War II, Hedy's mother was trapped in Vienna, and since she was Jewish, she was in great danger," Dean says. "Hedy already lived in Hollywood and was helping her mother escape to America. She got as far as London but it was not safe to cross the Atlantic because every American ship was getting blown up by the Nazis. Hedy was terrified her mother would die in the London Blitz and so every night she worked on inventing a remote controlled torpedo so advanced it would be able to hunt down and blow up every Nazi submarine in the Atlantic thus securing safe passage to the U.S. To make sure the Nazis couldn't hack the radio signal for her torpedo (and send it back to blow up the Allied ship that launched it), she created a 'secret communication system' that couldn't be hacked."


The "secret communications system," utilized changing radio frequencies to prevent enemies from decoding messages. Multiple radio frequencies were used to broadcast a radio signal, which changed frequencies at split-second intervals in an apparently random manner. To anyone listening, it would just sound like noise. But the signal would be clear if both the sender and receiver hopped frequencies at the same time. (The patent was filed under Lamarr's married name at the time Hedy Kiesler Markey.)

"She claimed that her prime motivation for seeking to aid the U.S. military in World War II was to help her mother who was trapped in Europe," Brook says. "Might it not also have been a form of atonement, for her marriage in the 1930s to a weapons manufacturer for the Third Reich?"

Although the technology was never used in wartime, it wound up playing a critical role in communication methods throughout the decades. "She gave the patent for that invention to the U.S. Navy and it was first used during the Cuban Missile Crisis," Dean says. Many believe that Lamarr's invention made technology like WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth, as well as devices like cellphones, possible.

"The frequency-hopping technology she pioneered is ironic, given her own inability to make the leap from pin-up girl to respected engineering genius," Brook says.


Too Outlandish to Be True

The U.S. Navy chose not to implement Lamarr's system, and although it was eventually put into action nearly two decades later, her patent had expired, meaning Lamarr never received a penny for her invention.

"Even though many inventors and scientists had heard the rumor that one of Hollywood's most glamorous stars had invented a secret communication system, most of them thought it was an urban legend and told me so," Dean says. "Hedy had never told her story to the public before, and most people who heard it dismissed it as too outlandish to be true. Robert Price, the top historian of secret communications, was the only scientist to ask Hedy directly if she came up with the invention, but when she told him that she did he thought it was a lie and didn't record her answer in his history of the invention. Instead he told everyone she was a spy who stole the invention from the Nazis."


While she wasn't able to achieve critical acclaim or recognition for her technical aptitude, Lamarr continued to see success in Hollywood. But her career began to decline in the 1950s, and subsequently experienced strife in her personal life, through six marriages, two arrests, and a host of substance abuse issues.

Well after her retirement and her retreat from the spotlight however, Lamarr finally received acknowledgement for her achievements off-screen. In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation jointly awarded Lamarr and Antheil with their Pioneer Award in 1997, and Lamarr also became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention's Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. For her invention, Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Although Lamarr died in 2000, her legacy has lived on through film and the belated recognition of her technological contributions. And according to Dean, she was so much more than the silver screen star who turned heads and attracted audiences. "When I first listened to Hedy's voice on tape, I was bowled over by her sense of humor!" Dean says. "She is so funny and quirky. The first thing she said on the tape was, 'I think I'll be able to control people after my death' and sometimes I think she meant to scare whomever listened to the tape and set out to tell her story! I was tickled by that idea.

"She also said she knew what she'd done in her life; she didn't need anyone to believe her. I loved that sense that she alone could give herself that recognition for her gargantuan achievement."