Beautiful? or Brilliant?
Updated: Jun 18
A few years ago, Kendra and I "discovered" Hedy Lamarr. Well not exactly discovered. We both knew of her as a famous actress who has been called "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World."
We knew some of her films. We'd even read that when she appeared on screen in her first film (Algiers in 1938) as the leading lady*, the audience gasped. The male lead, played by Charles Boyer was well known. But this new actor -- Hedy Lamarr -- had never been seen and the audience could not believe how beautiful she was. Some in the audience reported, "She took our breath away." Louis B. Mayer and MGM had a success on their hands and soon had her starring in multiple films.
* Leading lady was a phrase used during the Golden Age of film making.
Hedy Lamar's life became an American Masterpiece series called Bombshell. Here's a segment.
But I said we "discovered" Hedy. We had no idea that Hedy Lamarr was more than an actor and definitely more than a pretty face. She was an amazing woman -- an amazing inventor.
She invented the technology -- and was awarded a patent August 11, 1942 -- that has become the foundation for the GPS, Bluetooth and Wifi technology we use today. And I'm guessing that most of you reading this blog have never heard this part of the story.
It Began with Her Father...
Hedy's father, a bank president in Austria, often took his only daughter for long walks. He was fascinated by how things worked and would explore and explain technology to Hedy. For example, when they passed a street car on one such walk, he discussed how it worked.
A Marriage, Mostly Bad, Taught Her More about Science
At the age of 18, Hedy Lamarr married Fritz Mandl (33 years old) one of the wealthiest Austrian businessmen. He was both an arms merchant and munitions manufacturer. Hedy went with her husband to business meetings where she learned from scientists and military leaders about the use of technology. She learned about "problems" and "solutions". This nurtured her interest in innovation -- an interest that had been present since those long walks with her father. Mandl was close to dictators in Italy (Benito Mussolini) and Germany (Adolf Hitler). During the World War II, he sold munitions to the Nazi regime.
Although Hedy hosted the high level Nazi's at dinner parties in their home, she eventually realized she could not continue to be Mandl's wife. She did not like his politics and he was controlling, giving her no independence. She could never go out on her own. He kept track of her every day. She wanted to return to acting, but that was impossible as Mandl was possessive and jealous and refused to let her be seen in such a public way.
In her autobiography, Hedy wrote that at one of these dinner parties, she managed to persuade Mandl that she should wear many of her finest pieces of jewelry -- all pieces he had given her. She flattered him and he finally agreed, taking the pieces out of his safe. After being a charming hostess at dinner, she excused herself saying she was not feeling well. Once upstairs, she dressed as a maid and fled to Paris -- taking the jewelry with her -- jewelry she and her maid had sewn into her clothing. Those pieces of jewelry provided her with necessary funds for her escape and passage to America.
All of that story is fascinating and I urge you to read more about it. But this RosieCentral blog focuses on Hedy Lamarr as an inventor.
Hedy Lamarr as Inventor
Let's go back to the story of her first major invention. During WW2, Hedy wanted to help with the war effort. After seeing the devastating impact of German U boats as they sank British and American ships, Hedy realized the problem was with the electronics controlling the direction of the torpedos. They needed to be directed from the launching ship in order to reach the target. But the German's listened in on the communications and often could redirect their ships out of the way so that the torpedos did not destroy them.
Hedy, of course, was not trained as a scientist. But she know how to apply practical ideas to difficult problems. She teamed up with George Antheil, a composer who also worked for MGM, and they created what they called a Secret Communication System. Their invention was a system that changed frequencies constantly. So instead of a single message sent on a single frequencies, Germans had to try to decode a message sent over constantly changing frequencies. A much more difficult task.
Hedy and George sought a patent and more importantly brought their idea to the military. They felt that within a short amount of time, perhaps even months, their concept would save lives.
But it was not to be. The military did not take them seriously. These were two individuals from Hollywood, not from the military, and not scientists. It was much later when the concepts in the Secret Communication System became the foundation for much of our everyday technology. Just ask yourself -- How often do you rely on Wifi, Bluetooth, and GPS? How many of your activities depend on one or more of these technologies? They are a vital part of my daily activities from writing RosieCentral blogs to phone calls with Kendra to walks in nearby parks (where GPS allows me to know how many steps I've taken).
I hope you'll watch the 2 minute video below to learn how frequency hopping works. It's fascinating and fun!
A Boo Boo
Hedy Lamarr and Howard Hughes dated. There was romance, but the significant impact was that Howard Hughes valued Hedy for her brilliance. He set her up with a small laboratory that she could use in her dressing room between takes. He made his scientists available to her.
In addition, Hughes talked with Hedy about his desire to develop the fastest plane -- a plane he could sell to the military under a government contract. He took Hedy to view the prototype. After she left, she purchased two books -- one about the fastest birds and a second about the fasted fish.
She shared her findings and her new design for a plane's wing with Hughes. He delighted in the change and realized his design was a "boo boo." Learn more about this in the brief clip below. Watch how the winning shape developed.
INSPIRATION FROM HEDY LAMARR
Read the following 2 quotes and reflect on them.
So many of us become "whoever" the situation demands,
but not ourselves.
“I’ve been everything, but I’ve never been me.” ~ Hedy Lamarr
And so many other women, even in this 21st century,
are valued for our looks. Make sure that doesn't happen to you.
“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” ~Hedy Lamar
BUT IF YOU WALK AWAY WITH ONLY ONE PIECE
OF INSPIRATION FROM HEDY LAMARR
MAKE IT THIS ONE:
"Hope and curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. That's the way I was. The unknown was always so attractive to me... and still is." ~Hedy Lamar
Missed Our Previous Blogs? Check these out!
Rosie the Riveter's Riveting Story -- Find out the connection to Jackie Kennedy's fashion designer and Rosalind Palmer Walter (major funder of public television).
Wendy the Welder (Rosie the Riveter's Co-Worker)
Margaret E. Knight (Another Inventor)
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (Also an Inventor)
Want More Stories about Amazing Women? More Inspiration for Your Own Life?
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