Throughout her life, Hedy Lamarr played a variety of roles: movie star, inventor, patent holder, producer, wife, and mother. She was a rebel who challenged social norms, but after she fled Nazi Germany, she took pains to save her mother. Though her end may seem tragic, Lamarr’s bold pursuit of new ideas places her among the role models for anyone with dreams of advancing our technology. Lamarr’s scientific contribution is more than a mere footnote to her movie career. She changed our lives.
A new documentary, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” is in theaters now. Here’s a clip of the trailer:
Lamarr is most known for her beauty and her movie roles. Lamarr was only 18 years old in 1933, when she starred in the Czechoslovakian film Ekstase. The film caused a scandal when it was first released. Lamarr appeared nude in some scenes, and in another she appeared to portray female orgasm. Here’s a link.
After that movie and some stage roles, Lamarr married an Austrian arms merchant, who tightly controlled her life, according to Lamarr’s autobiography, Ecstasy and Me. Though both of Lamarr’s parents (and her father-in-law) were Jewish, her husband had ties to Hitler and Mussolini. After she fled the marriage and the growing movements of Nazism and fascism in Europe, Lamarr went on to star in some of the top American films of the 1930s and 1940s.
Still, she wanted to contribute to the war effort. During that time, Lamarr worked with Composer George Antheil to develop spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology, hoping that the technology would be used to avoid malfunctions in radio-controlled torpedoes. In this way, Lamarr and Antheil hoped that the technology would help shorten the war.
The technology was granted a secret patent in 1941, seen here.
However, the U.S. military wanted her to focus on selling war bonds. The patent was ignored for decades. Upon its “rediscovery,” the technology led to development of global positioning systems (GPS), Wifi, and other applications that make consumer cell phone use ubiquitous.
Over the course of her life, Lamarr married six times and raised three children. Like many misunderstood geniuses, Lamarr faced reversals of fortune. In time, Lamarr’s star faded, but she continued to attract controversy.
Her later life was marred by arrests for shoplifting and theft, as well as numerous lawsuits. Her autobiography itself was the subject of dispute when it was first published in 1966. First, Lamarr sued the publisher, saying that many sections were fabricated by a ghost writer. Then, Lamarr was sued by a writer who claimed plagiarism. She lost both suits.
Regardless of her personal troubles, Lamarr continued to appear on talk shows and game shows in the 1950s and 1960s. IMDB lists nearly as many Lamarr appearances as “Self” (28) as Actress (35). Here’s a link.
As an example, the new documentary points to a famous 1969 episode of “The Merv Griffin Show.” Lamarr appeared as a guest, along with actress Leslie Uggams, comedienne Moms Mabley, and filmmaker Woody Allen. Here is a clip:
By the 1970s, Lamarr’s reputation had declined to the point that her name had become a punch line in the Mel Brooks comedy, Blazing Saddles. Famously, Harvey Korman played a character named Hedley Lamarr. His most famous line is now the basis of a meme, “it’s not Hedy, it’s Hedley,” as seen here:
When Lamarr sued in 1974 for infringement of her privacy, the claim was settled.
She finally died far from the limelight in 2000 at the age of 85. Still, her legacy lives on in every text message and GIF transmitted by cell phone.
Her life story is proof of what long term damage institutional sexism can cause. Her innovation languished for decades, only to be “rediscovered” by the same cultural structures that allow bro culture to persist and limit the advancement of women in tech now. Who couldn’t be frustrated – even angry — at the fact that Lamarr’s contribution is still being “rediscovered,” instead of being taught in history classes?
Only recently has Lamarr been given proper recognition for her accomplishments. In 2014, the National Inventors Hall of Fame inducted Lamarr for her achievements.
As users of the internet become interested in the history of its creation and development, Lamarr’s story has recaptured the attention of the cultural zeitgeist. Her life has become the subject of a one woman show by Heather Massie, who took the show to Baltimore, MD, last November. The story of her invention with Antheil has been portrayed in an off-broadway production. Here’s one review.
In time, her biography may come to be listed alongside other female scientific pioneers, like Vera Rubin, who revolutionized the studies of galactic motion and dark matter and Ada Lovelace, the visionary who advanced the development of computer algorithms.
How many students even know their names? Will the true history of women in science and technology simply fade into obscurity — or be lost completely? The only way to prevent such a fate is to learn our own history and teach it to others. The way to assure that women’s role in science history is recognized is to do it ourselves.
The popular culture is beginning to recognize women’s contributions to science and technology. However, these changes mainly take the form of incremental moves like the current documentary about Lamarr, or like naming an asteroid after Vera Rubin.
After all that Lamarr endured, she at least deserves a posthumous nomination for inclusion into the “Me Too” Movement. Though I can’t offer apologies for what others put Lamarr through during her life, I can at least say this: “thank you.”