The Brains behind the Beauty: Hedy Lamarr, Actress and Inventor

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." - Hedy Lamarr | Publicity photo for the film The Heavenly Body | 1944 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Imagine coming home from a long day of work from your main job, only to instantly begin work again on developing an invention that could change the outcome of World War II. Countless hours spent in a room in your home designated specifically for inventing, motivated by the idea of helping the people you left behind in your hometown. You strive in your free time to create something that would not only show your loyalty to the United States but would also help defeat the Nazis. Nothing could stop you, except maybe your reputation and gender. And this was the case for the famous actress Hedy Lamarr, the woman who dedicated her efforts to inventing the concept of spread spectrum. No one thought she would be capable of helping to create a technology that is still used in wireless communications to this day. But Lamarr set out to help those with her same beliefs who were suffering because of this war.1

Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr for film Comrade X | 1940 | MGM / Clarence Bull | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hedy Lamarr was undoubtedly beautiful, and was even credited with being the most beautiful woman in the world, but when she wasn’t in front of the flashing lights of fame, she was an amateur scientist.2 Hedy Lamarr was so much more than her beauty. She was intelligent and creative. After years of success in her acting career, she became actively involved in the world of science and technology. Lamarr had a racy past, which included her becoming known as a sex symbol in the film industry, and countless scandals that caused her other amazing talents and inventions to be hidden in the shadow of her limelight. Her growing wealth and Austrian past gave her the motive to contribute help to those who were suffering in Europe. As any successful actress, Hedy Lamarr attended many parties, but little did she know that one of these parties would be crucial in commencing the invention that has changed the world.3

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 got Lamarr involved with selling war bonds and volunteering in United Service Organization clubs to help the country as much as possible. Hedy was great at selling war bonds, even selling up to $7 million in one night; but Lamarr knew she could do more.4 This resulted in her beginning to ponder the ideas of her greatest invention. Then, one night as Lamarr attended another one of her Hollywood parties, she met George Antheil, a music composer for Hollywood films. Together, the two would turn Lamarr’s ideas into reality.5 After spending the whole night discussing their admiration for inventing and interest in assisting in the war, the two built the foundations of an invention that would possibly assist the Navy in attacking enemy ships. Lamarr even considered leaving Hollywood to dedicate her full energy to inventing, by joining the National Inventor’s Council, but was dissuaded by Antheil. She then decided to stay in Hollywood, where she could boost public morale through her films and work on her inventions in her free time. Despite Lamarr’s busy schedule, she was able to work with Antheil to begin developing her idea. Antheil’s previous knowledge in having once composed a piece that required sixteen synchronized player pianos assisted in executing Lamarr’s idea.

Lamarr was largely motivated by her Jewish roots. She wanted to bring her mother to the United States, which was nearly impossible at the time. The trip to cross the Atlantic was extremely dangerous, as Nazi submarines were blowing up any ships that carried refugees trying to flee Europe, which only fueled Lamarr’s desire to assist in ending the war. With her extensive knowledge of weapons used in this war, due to her previous relationship with Fritz Mandl, a munitions manufacturer who created weapons and worked closely with Nazis, Lamarr was able to find a problem that needed a solution. The cause that Lamarr sought to fix was the waste warships went through as they shot torpedoes in a general direction before actually hitting the enemy.6

Secret Communication System | Patent for Secret Communication System | 10 June 1941 | U.S. Patent Office | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lamarr’s plan was to invent a radio-controlled missile that contained an anti-jamming device. The idea of a radio-controlled missile was genius for the time, as it would be able to adjust to a moving target. The only issue with this was that the radio frequency controlling the missile could be easily obstructed by the enemy.7 The process that would fix the issue with a regular radio-controlled missile would soon be known as “Frequency Hopping.” This idea of frequency hopping allows a message to be broadcast over a series of radio frequencies and a receiver hopping from frequency to frequency simultaneously is used to pick up the message. Any eavesdroppers would not be able to hear the full message and those attempting to stop the message (also known as jammers) would only be able to knock out a few pieces, allowing the full message to still get through. 

Lamarr and Antheil’s invention was genius. If applied correctly, this invention could have cut the time spent at war and possibly saved millions.8 After a collaborative effort, the two sent their description of the system to the National Inventors Council in order to receive a patent. The patent’s design actually used paper rolls similar to piano rolls to synchronize the jumps between the transmitter and the receiver. There are also 88 proposed frequencies matching the number of keys to a piano. There is little doubt that the invention’s design was heavily influenced by Antheil’s involvement in music.9

The patent was granted about one year later and was sent off to Washington to possibly be considered for use in war. However, Lamarr was told that the device was unworkable and that her efforts should remain focused more on entertaining the troops and selling war bonds.10 The efficiency of their invention was overshadowed by the roles the two played in the public. The Navy didn’t believe an actress and a concert pianist could create something of any use to the war. They also considered the mechanism to be too bulky to attach to a torpedo, due to their ignorance when reading the patent and seeing the words “player piano,” which led them to believe that the two wanted to attach a player piano to a missile! This ignorance resulted in the patent collecting dust for twenty years, until three years after its expiration.11

Hedy Lamarr in The Heavenly Body | 1944 | Employees of MGM | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The design was then used for a basic secure military communication. Sadly, this was not until the patent between the two had expired, resulting in neither Lamarr nor Antheil receiving a cent or any credit for their hard work. Between the years of 1945 to 2012, the patent was cited at least sixty-two times, proving it to be far from unworkable, both commercially and militarily. It was not until 1997 that Lamarr and Antheil would receive their official recognition from Electronic Frontier Foundation.12

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s invention was ahead of its time. But it leaves us with the question as to what may have been different if the two had not been dismissed on account of their careers? Maybe if Lamarr had recognized her own worth as well as the worth of her invention, she would have fought for its use in the military rather than passively sitting back and allowing it to collect dust. From the face that inspired Walt Disney’s first princess, Snow White, to the brains behind the scientific concept of spread spectrum, Hedy Lamarr is a remarkable woman. And due to the efforts of Lamarr and Antheil, the concept of “frequency hopping” can now be found at the tips of your fingers, as it serves as the foundational technology in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS.13

  1. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 2002, s.v. “Lamarr, Hedy (1913-2000),” by John Haag.
  2. Cathaleen Chen, “Hedy Lamarr: Actress by day, tech inventor by night; Heddy Lamarr was honored with a Google Doodle. It turns out, the famous actress was also quite the inventor,” The Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 2015.
  3. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 2002, s.v. “Lamarr, Hedy (1913-2000),” by John Haag.
  4. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 2002, s.v. “Lamarr, Hedy (1913-2000),” by John Haag.
  5. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 2002, s.v. “Lamarr, Hedy (1913-2000),” by John Haag.
  6. Anna Diamond, “Hollywood’s Secret Weapon: A new documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, unearths the movie star’s World War II invention, an ingenious forerunner of high-tech communications. Director Alexandra Dean loops us in,” Smithsonian 26 (2017).
  7. Sandra Hall, “Inside Hedy Lamarr’s secret life as a wartime inventor,” The Age (Melbourne, Australia), March 1, 2018.
  8. Interestingly, the technology of “frequency hopping” would only catch on twenty to thirty years after the invention’s creation in 1941.
  9.  Gale Virtual Reference Library, 2007, s.v. “Lamarr Hedy”,227.
  10. Pamela Hutchinson, “Hedy Lamarr: Stealing Beauty,” Sight & Sound 28, no.4 (2018): 42.
  11. Fleming Meeks, “I guess they just take and forget about a person,” Forbes 145, no. 10 (1990): 137.
  12. Pamela Hutchinson, “Hedy Lamarr: Stealing Beauty,” Sight & Sound 28, no.4 (2018): 42.
  13. Richard Rhodes, “HEDY’S FOLLY: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” Kirkus Reviews 79, no. 19 (2011): 1796-1797.
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27 Comments

  • Beauty, brains, and creativity. It’s a shame that Hedy Lamarr was not able to receive the initial credit and recognition her and George Antheil’s invention deserved. They were shown prejudice just because they were in the entertainment industry, even though their invention is now being used throughout the world today. I could only imagine the changes this invention could have made if used in war. Despite initial ignorance, Lamarr is truly an inspirational woman. Great article!

  • Unfortunately, Lamarr was discriminated due to her gender and her looks. This is really sad taking into account that her invention had a major impact on technology, and we would not live life as we do without her invention. To be honest, I just think it is stupid that no one took her seriously because she was a beautiful woman. In those times (and sometimes in today’s world), people looked down upon others given their gender, race, etc., which is why Lamarr did not enjoy the success of the tremendous helpful invention she created. One can have brains and beauty simultaneously.

  • Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s war efforts were well placed; however, due to their titling of the patent having to do with the piano, it was not considered as a serious attempt to help the war effort. Hedy Lamarr’s desire and ingenuity to help is truly amazing; she could have remained in her entertainment industry, but she decided to help the American cause. It’s sad that their invention was only used after the patent expired. Despite this, their legacy has been immortalized, and their efforts to help America and the Allied powers is greatly appreciated.

  • Hedy Lamarr had an undeniable beauty and was exceptionally smart. It is heartbreaking to hear that she was never taken seriously due to her looks. Societies then and societies now have a problem of judging others by their physical features instead of giving them a chance to show their talents in other ways. It is sad she never got the credit and recognition she deserved. This article was very nice and well written and serves the purpose of keeping her essence alive.

  • I had not heard of Lamarr before but from reading this article she was a well versed talented woman. Although her invention was great it is sad that it was not used or acknowledged until years later. In our society we heavily rely on Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and the GPS that I wonder how different our technology would be without Lamarr’s invention.

  • The term beauty and brains truly applies to Hedy Lamarr. That is something every girl strives for. It is sad to hear that she was judged so much for her looks and never taken seriously, and even more sad that it brought her to her demise. Judging people, especially women by their looks is a true problem that society faces. If we could let that go, who knows how much better the world could be. It is sad that Hedy or George never got the credit they deserved, but truly great that this article helped to mend that.

  • It is ridiculous how two geniuses were dismissed because of their career path and gender! How many lives would their invention have saved if it was not rejected out of prejudice? Lamarr’s scientific side should have been showcased along with her Hollywood career. Women do have both brains and beauty. This makes me realize how many opportunities modern women have and how much we have progressed as a society. Lamarr was such an inspiration and an amazing woman!

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