Hedy Lamarr an icon in film and science
By: Savanah Tillberg, Staff Writer
March is Women’s History Month, a time where we celebrate the accomplishments and contributions made by women throughout history. The Argus has set out to pay tribute to various women who have significantly contributed to humanity throughout the month because as Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile, once said, “We simply can no longer afford to deny the full potential of one half of the population.” This week, The Argus has chosen to acknowledge the achievements of Hedy Lamarr, actress and inventor.
When thinking back to the 1940s, generally people like Hitler and Churchill come to mind. However we needn’t forget “the most beautiful woman in films,” Hedy Lamarr. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914, Hedy continually captivated the world until her death in 2000.
Hedy was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary to her Jewish parents, Gertrud, a pianist, and Emil, a successful bank manager. She was discovered as an actress in her teen years and was brought to Berlin by a film producer to train in theatre. She starred in her first film when she was 17 and continued to do both German and Czechoslovakian productions. In 1932 she starred in the film Ecstasy, which was famous for its brief nude scenes and blatant demonstration of female sexuality; this role awarded her the attention of various Hollywood directors.
At age 18, Hedy married Friedrich Mandl who was 33 at the time and was considered to be the third richest man in Austria. Mandl was an Austrian military arms merchant and munitions manufacturer who, despite his and his wife’s Jewish heritage, had ties to Mussolini as well as Hitler’s Nazi government.
Mandl often took Hedy to business meetings where he would confer with scientists involved with military technology; it was through these meetings that Hedy developed a passion for science. She described Friedrich Mandl as controlling husband who kept her from pursuing her acting career, and in 1937 she decided to leave him.
Soon after leaving her husband, Hedy arrived in Hollywood and officially became Hedy Lamarr shortly before she started starring in American films. Hedy, new to Hollywood, co-starred with some of the biggest names in the American film industry at the time.
In addition to her successful film career, Hedy continued to pursue her interests in science following her first marriage. Hedy befriended “the bad boy of music,” George Antheil and together they began developing communication technology for the war effort. Hedy’s disdain for the Nazis pushed her to develop what was then called the Secret Communications System. Her invention changed radio frequency periods in order to scramble messages. The technology used slotted paper rolls to decode the radio frequencies that were altered between the transmitter and the receiver based on specific code. The technology functioned similarly to a player piano in that a piano player uses different tempos and notes to create a melody, which is how the Secret Communications System would create indecipherable code. The technology, which was groundbreaking for its time, allowed for messages to be sent without them being detected, broken or stopped.
Lamarr and Antheil donated their patent to the Allied war effort but it was not used during WWII. The technology would be implemented, however; 20 years later during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it was used on ships that were sent to blockade Cuba. Their patent expired three years later and neither Antheil nor Lamarr were compensated for their contribution.
Between WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hedy Lamarr has been offered a position working under Dr. Kettering who led the National Inventions Council. Despite her talent and success in science, Hedy continued to further her acting career. After arriving in the United States, she married five more times and became widely known as “the most beautiful woman in films.”
Lamarr’s Secret Communications System was decades ahead of its time and paved the way for technology used in fax machines, cell phones, and Wi-Fi. So the next time you’re watching Netflix from your laptop, go ahead and thank Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy saw recognition for her scientific contributions much later in her life. In 1997, she and her partner Anthiel received the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. Hedy Lamarr later received the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered to be “the Oscar of Invention.”
Hedy helped set a new standard for women in a time where all that was expected of them was to be glamorous. In fact, Hedy was famously quoted for saying, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Hedy Lamarr, along with countless others, were instrumental in demonstrating the capabilities of women to the world. Though we still have far to go, the month of March is dedicated to celebrating how far we’ve come.