The first thing I want you to note is that I will not be including any images of Hedy Lamarr in this post honoring her passing on this day in 2000. I think she would have found this refreshing. As I was writing this piece, the articles I found that spoke about her brilliant mind and focused on her plethora of inventions still featured at least a few pictures of her in her youth, when she was considered one of the most beautiful women on film.
A brief version of her biography goes something like this: born in Austria in 1914, at 18 she was in the infamous film, “Ecstasy” and also married a much older man. She left both husband and country when they became unbearable a few years later. After meeting Louis B. Mayer, she started a Hollywood film career, but that became a trap from which she would never find a way to flee.
There are many sad aspects to Lamarr’s life: a string of failed marriages, a flagging production company, and later on, deep seclusion from the outside world as her beauty and eyesight faded. Yet there was, in the background, her inventing which seemed to bring some satisfaction and joy into her life.
By all accounts, she considered her beauty to be a curse as much as anything. It’s easy to see why she would feel this way, despite the doors it opened for her. She was never respected in her lifetime for the various inventions she designed and the scientific mind that was, for lack of a better phrase, trapped in a beautiful body.
When the Navy purchased her patent for the frequencing hopping technology she invented to aid in the war effort, she was told she would be better off spending her time selling kisses and being a pinup for the men at the front. That technology she invented? It’s the basis for wifi, bluetooth, and other technologies we all use every day. Sell kisses indeed.
There are some who say she got the idea for this technology from a diagram she saw in her first husband’s office. As if this meant she should not receive the credit she gets for her patent. As a programmer and writer and I tell you that no idea ever comes from a vacuum. Everyone who has ever created anything built it on bits and pieces of what came before. It actually makes me a bit angry to hear someone try to devalue Ms. Lamarr’s contributions, as if she were too beautiful to have the brains for the work she did.
The basis for wifi was not the only thing she invented, either. She worked on an improved version of a traffic light, an interesting carbonation tablet, and when she dated Howard Hughes, she offered up designs for streamlined versions of his airplanes.
It wasn’t until 1997 that she began receiving real recognition for her pioneering work. She (and her co-inventor) were awarded with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award and she was also honored with the prized BULBIEª Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award (the “Oscar” of inventing). In 2014 she was posthumously inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Her name began fading into obscurity when she began secluding herself from the public, and her passing in 2000 was quiet. Fortunately, she received some recognition for her beautiful mind as well as her beautiful visage before the end. I hope she was able to find some satisfaction in that.
I had known about her involvement in inventing frequency hopping, but am glad to know more of the details and about how much Ms. Lamarr valued intelligence and inventiveness. Now when I hear the name Hedy Lamarr, I’ll think of her brains before her beauty. I hope you will as well.
Want to learn a bit more?
And the documentary about her life and work, “Bombshell” is currently available on Netflix and Amazon streaming services.