Hedy Lamarr: From ‘Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ to Groundbreaking Inventor

  @cavanshays on November 28 2011 2:51 PM

Hedy Lamarr was known as the most beautiful woman in the world at the height of her Hollywood career. The Austrian-American actress was celebrated for her beauty and reached the pinnacle of fame starring in movies like Samson and Delilah and Ecstasy.

But, there is far more to Lamarr than just a pretty face. A little-known fact has been revealed in the new book, Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Rhodes, that highlights the complexities of this gorgeous woman.

Lamarr was actually an inventor, and the woman behind an invention that was the precursor to wireless technologies of the twenty-first century, including GPS, Bluetooth and cell phone networks.

Author Rhodes discussed this exciting and interesting revelation with NPR's Rachel Martin.

Lamarr had been captivated by science since she was a little girl in Austria. But she decided to pursue acting instead after hearing that Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios was scouting for talent.

She went to see him in London. He wasn't willing to offer her a very good deal, so she said no and walked out, having great confidence in herself, Rhodes says.

When Lamarr heard Mayer was heading to the U.S. she bought a ticket to board the same boat.

Once she was aboard, she found a way to make him long for her - after all, she was an actress. And before the ship landed in New York, she had a much, much better contract - the equivalent of about $3,000 a week for seven years, he said. Within a year, with the appearance of her in the film Algiers opposite Charles Boyer, she was a superstar.

 Although she skyrocketed to fame because of her stunning beauty, Lamarr was not a typical Hollywood starlet.

Hedy didn't drink. She didn't like to party, he says. Her idea of a good evening was a quiet dinner party with some intelligent friends where they could discuss ideas - which sounds so un-Hollywood, but Hedy had to find something else to do to occupy her time.

So, she had a drafting table built in her home and began inventing.

She was constantly looking at the world and thinking, 'Well, how could that be fixed? How could that be improved?'

Once World War II began, Lamarr was fascinated by the technological innovations. She wanted to invent something to help the Allied cause. She knew that if torpedoes were radio-guided they could hit their targets better.

She understood that the problem with radio signals was that they could be jammed. But if you could make the signal hop around more or less randomly from radio frequency to radio frequency, then the person at the other end trying to jam the signal won't know where it is, he said. If they try to jam one particular frequency, it might hit that frequency on one of its hops, but it would only be there for a fraction of a second.

Lamarr, and her co-inventor composer George Anthell, invented the spread-spectrum radio. They were excited to share their finding with the Navy but, after getting it patented, the Navy was uninterested.

The Navy being the Navy, if it hadn't been able to make a torpedo that worked, obviously it wasn't going to be receptive to ideas coming in from outside, Rhodes says. The Navy basically threw it into the file.

After the war, the Navy became interested. They wanted to develop the sonobuoy and so revisited Lamarr's invention.

They resuscitated the idea of frequency-hopping and built it into the sonobuoy. And after that, the whole system just spread like wildfire, Rhodes said.

Today Lamarr's invention can be found in most wireless digital devices. But Lamarr was never recognized for her contribution.

It was not until the 1990s, when Lamarr was in her early 80s that one of the pioneers of wireless communications for computers decided to pay homage to the beautiful genius.

He started the ball rolling so that one of the major communications organizations would give her one of its awards. She by then had had so much bad plastic surgery that she didn't like to go out in public so she received the award by telephone, Rhodes said.

When they called her up to tell her she would get the award her first words were, Hedy Lamarr being Hedy Lamarr, 'Well, it's about time.'

Beauty and brains, what more could one ask for?

To hear the entire interview with author Richard Rhodes, click here.

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