Hedy Lamarr

Golden Age Film Actress and Inventor of Frequency-Hopping Technology

Hedy Lamarr

 Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Hedy Lamarr was a film actress of Jewish heritage during MGM’s “Golden Age.” Deemed “the most beautiful woman in the world” by MGM publicists, Lamarr shared the silver screen with stars like Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Yet Lamarr was much more than a pretty face, she also is credited with inventing frequency-hopping technology.

Early Life and Career

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler on November 9, 1914, in Vienna, Austria. Her parents were Jewish, with her mother, Gertrud (née Lichtwitz) being a pianist (rumored to have converted to Catholicism) and her father Emil Kiesler, a successful banker. Lamarr’s father loved technology and would explain how everything from streetcars to printing presses worked. His influence no doubt led to Lamarr’s own enthusiasm for technology later in life.

As a teen Lamarr became interested in acting and in 1933 she starred in a film titled "Ecstasy." She played a young wife, named Eva, who is trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man and who eventually begins an affair with a young engineer. The film generated controversy because it included scenes that would be tame by modern standards: a glance of Eva’s breasts, a shot of her running naked through the forest, and an up close shot of her face during a love scene.

Also in 1933, Lamarr married a wealthy, Vienna-based arms manufacturer named Friedrich Mandl. Their marriage was an unhappy one, with Lamarr reporting in her autobiography that Mandl was extremely possessive and isolated Lamarr from other people. She would later remark that during their marriage she was given every luxury except freedom. Lamarr despised their life together and after attempting to leave him in 1936, fled to France in 1937 disguised as one of her maids.

The Most Beautiful Woman in the World

From France, she went on to London, where she met Louis B. Mayer, who offered her an acting contract in the United States.

Before long, Mayer convinced her to change her name from Hedwig Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr, inspired by a silent film actress who had died in 1926. Hedy signed a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio, which dubbed her “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World." Her first American film, Algiers, was a box office hit.

Lamarr went on to make many other films with Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy (Boom Town) and Victor Mature (Samson and Delilah). During this period, she married screenwriter Gene Markey, though their relationship ended in divorce in 1941.

Lamarr would eventually have six husbands in all. After Mandl and Markey, she married John Lodger (1943-47, actor), Ernest Stauffer (1951-52, restaurateur), W. Howard Lee (1953-1960, Texas oilman), and Lewis J. Boies (1963-1965, lawyer). Lamarr had two children with her third husband, John Lodger: a daughter named Denise and a son named Anthony. Hedy kept her Jewish heritage a secret throughout her life. In fact, it was only after her death that her children learned they were Jewish.

The Invention of Frequency Hopping

One of Lamarr’s greatest regrets was that people rarely recognized her intelligence. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she once said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

Lamarr was a naturally gifted mathematician and during her marriage to Mandl had become familiar with concepts related to military technology. This background came to the forefront in 1941 when Lamarr came up with the concept of frequency hopping. In the midst of World War II, radio-guided torpedoes did not have a high success rate when it came to hitting their targets. Lamarr thought frequency hopping would make it harder for enemies to detect a torpedo or intercept its signal. She shared her idea with a composer named George Antheil (who at one time had been a government inspector of U.S. munitions and who had already composed music that used the remote control of automated instruments), and together they submitted her idea to the U.S. Patent Office. The patent was filed in 1942 and published in 1942 under H.K. Markey et. al.

Though Lamarr's concept would ultimately revolutionize technology, at the time the military did not want to accept military advice from a Hollywood starlet. As a result, her idea was not put into practice until the 1960s after her patent had expired. Today, Lamarr’s concept is the basis of spread-spectrum technology, which is used for everything from Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to satellites and wireless phones.

Later Life and Death

Lamarr’s film career began to slow in the 1950s. Her last movie was The Female Animal with Jane Powell. In 1966, she published an autobiography titled Ecstasy and Me, which went on to become a best seller. She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In the early 1980s, Lamarr moved to Florida where she died, largely a recluse, of heart disease on January 19, 2000, at the age of 86. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods.

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Pelaia, Ariela. "Hedy Lamarr." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/who-was-hedy-lamarr-2076720. Pelaia, Ariela. (2020, August 27). Hedy Lamarr. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-was-hedy-lamarr-2076720 Pelaia, Ariela. "Hedy Lamarr." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-was-hedy-lamarr-2076720 (accessed June 6, 2023).