How Hedy Lamarr Helped Us Go Wireless
At the height of her Hollywood career, actress Hedy Lamarr was known as "the most beautiful woman in the world." For most of her life, she was only known for her glamorous looks.
But in 1940, while acting alongside Jimmy Stewart and Judy Garland in an MGM musical, the 26-year-old starlet began proving that she had much more to offer the world than her beautiful face. Incensed at the unfolding horrors of World War II, Lamarr started spending her free time devising inventions to assist the war effort, including a radio-controlled submarine missile-guidance system to help the U.S. Navy. Wireless technologies from her innovations are still used today, in Bluetooth, GPS, cellphone networks and more.
A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes sets out to rewrite America's memory of Lamarr. Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, chronicles her life and inventive skills, which, until recently, went undiscovered. As the Los Angeles Times writes: "put in modern context, it's like Farah Fawcett developing Google's proprietary search algorithm."
Rhodes is the author or editor of 22 books, including The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. He has received numerous fellowships for research and writing, including grants from the Ford, Guggenheim, MacArthur, and Alfred P. Sloan foundations. He lives in Northern California, where SecondAct caught up with him for a chat.
SA: This book is a bit of a departure for you. You've spent decades writing hard nonfiction about war and munitions, and now you've written about a movie star. What drew you to write a book about Hedy Lamarr?
RR: I had just finished the fourth volume on the nuclear age -- I'd spent 30 years on one subject -- and was trying to decide what to do next, something different. I was working with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation on a list of 20th century American inventors and was surprised to see her name on it. It was revelatory to learn more about her -- and I decided that had to be my next book. It was fun to do.
SA: Why would a 26-year-old starlet get started in inventing?
RR: There are two answers. One is that Hedy's father, when she was a child in Vienna, would explain to her how everything worked. When the bus would drive by, he would explain the technology that allowed it to go. They were very close. But more immediately, when she came to Hollywood in her 20s, she didn't drink or enjoy loud parties, and she had to find some way to fill her time between jobs. So she set up a room in her house that was sort of an inventor's corner, with a drafting table, and she spent her spare time in there.
SA: But there also were emotional reasons for her wanting to get involved in inventing.
RR: Yes, she had just adopted a little boy when World War II broke out. Germans were torpedoing passenger ships, and she was particularly horrified when they sank a ship carrying child refugees. She decided then and there to try and do something about it -- and to donate her time to the war effort.
SA: It sounds like she was a very sharp young woman -- and kept her ears open during her early marriage to an Austrian munitions manufacturer. That must have been an education for her.
RR: Fritz Mandl was very active in the early pro-Nazi war efforts, and Hedy learned a great deal from sitting at dinner parties with him and other munitions experts. She must have been exceptionally bright to retain all those details. They probably thought of her as a trophy wife, but she was keeping mental notes.
SA: And then she fled her marriage, met film producer Louis B. Mayer and arrived in Hollywood, where she almost instantly became a star. Was she conflicted about her dueling desires to be a star and also be taken seriously for her brains?
RR: It was a struggle all her life. It bothered her that people couldn't get past her face. She said once, "My beauty is my curse." I mean, here is someone who played chess with Man Ray but was hired to play roles like Tondelayo, the sultry African native girl. She famously said, "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."
SA: She sounds like a woman who knew her own mind and was very ambitious.
RR: Her husband, John Loder, who was the father of her two children, tells the story about how he moved in with her, and after a month she gave him a bill for his share of the cooking, housekeeping and such.
SA: I guess the message was "you don't have to take care of me, but I'm sure as hell not going to take care of you."
RR: [laughs] Exactly.
SA: So Lamarr's main invention involved creating a jam-proof signaling system.
RR: Yes, for torpedoes, which were notoriously inaccurate; they rarely hit their targets because their signals could be jammed. She collaborated with the avant-garde composer George Antheil, whom she met at a dinner party, on new technology that would allow for frequency hopping. As soon as it hit the Navy files, it was classified as "top secret," and it remained that way until the '70s, when a lot of things were declassified.
SA: And it became, in the '90s, one of the main technologies used for the development of wireless and cellular phones?
RR: Cellphone developers realized it would cost them slightly more to use Hedy's system than another system, so they went with that one. However, wireless phones in your home use her method of frequency hopping.
SA: And she never made a dollar off her invention?
RR: No, but she'd given it away anyway. It was developed for the war effort, so she didn't want to profit from it.
SA: At least she was finally acknowledged for her contribution in 1997, with an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
RR: Yes, and when she learned of it, in typical Hedy Lamarr fashion, her response was, "It's about time."
Keep reading: How 'Mary Tyler Moore' Became 'Sex in the City'