Hedy Lamarr: Mother of Wi-Fi and Star of the Silver Screen

By Cali Carss

“The most beautiful woman in film.” This unofficial title was bestowed on Hedy Lamarr at the height of her career, and she lived up to it. Lamarr was a stunning and charismatic actress with a complicated and compelling past. 

Born Hedwig Eva Kiesler on November 9th, 1914 to a well-off Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, Hedy was bright from a young age . Her parents fostered her talents and interests in her early years: her father would tell her about the inner workings of machinery, prompting Hedy’s own curiosity, and her mother enrolled her in piano and ballet classes. However, her versatility  would soon be pushed to the side as she was discovered in 1930 by director Max Reinhardt. Under him, she would study acting in Berlin. Two years later she would gain much more recognition, albeit not all good, for her controversial role in the film Ecstasy; the general consensus being that it was much too provocative of a role to be on the big screen or seen as “respectable”.

Despite the mostly negative response to her first big film, Hedy’s beauty and talent drew in many fans, one of which was Friedrich “Fritz” Mandl, an Austrian munitions manufacturer and known facist who was thirteen years her senior. He was persistent in his pursuit of her, and they ended up marrying in 1933 when Hedy was only nineteen. She was also made to convert to Catholicism at his request. The marriage was short-lived, only about three years, but it was a rather miserable one. Once married, Hedy could no longer continue her acting career and was reduced to the title of Fritz’s wife, making appearances at dinner parties with prominent fascist figures. She said in later interviews that he was “an absolute monarch” in their marriage and that she was “like a doll” to him with no life of her own. In 1937, she managed to outwit Fritz, fleeing through Paris to London and later on to America. Her previous acclaim led her to signing a contract with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios.

Tinkering.

Hedy captivated American audiences immediately, starring in many films and becoming famous for her beauty and grace. But she wasn’t satisfied. It didn’t sit well with her that she was living a life of luxury in Hollywood while the world was in the midst of a terrible war. As a result of her first marriage, Hedy had knowledge of munitions and weaponry and would use this, along with her own instincts for innovation, to try to help combat the Axis powers. Hedy had a desire and motivation for innovation, as can be seen in her friends and partners in America. The most notable of said friends was composer George Antheil, known for his inventive and experimental compositions. The two were fast friends and inventing partners. Alongside Antheil, Hedy fashioned a communication system meant to guide torpedoes to their target. The system used “frequency hopping” to prevent interception and allow the torpedo to find its target without trouble. This technology would become the basis on which wi-fi, bluetooth, and other wireless internet developed; Hedy is now known in some circles as the  “mother of wi-fi”. Lamarr and Anthell sought a patent for their invention, which was awarded to them in 1942, but were turned away from the military as the Navy decided not to use the system.

Despite this rejection, Hedy continued to support the war effort, using her fame to sell war bonds. She cared deeply for her adopted country and became a citizen in 1953.
Hedy Lamarr continued to act until 1958, her genius largely ignored by the public, and her patent expiring before she saw a profit from it. In her later years, she was finally recognized for her invention, proving herself for the umpteenth time to be so much more than a pretty face. She and George Antheil were jointly awarded a Pioneer Award in 1997 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Hedy became the first woman to be awarded the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. Hedy was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously. Although she passed away in 2000, her memory lives on: both in her beautiful films as well as every time someone picks up a smartphone.