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By Kendra Bean on

Forgotten Women in STEM: Hedy Lamarr

In the first of a new series, Collections Assistant Kendra Bean delves into our collection in search of female trailblazers in science, technology, engineering and maths. First up: actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr.

So often throughout history the scientific achievements of women have been forgotten; ignored, overshadowed and sometimes outright stolen by their male peers. For this series, Collections Assistant Kendra Bean delves into the museum’s collections in search of female trailblazers in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1949). Publicity portrait.
Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1949), publicity portrait © Mirrorpix, Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group/SSPL

Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, she shot to fame in Europe by appearing nude in the Austrian-Czech film Ecstasy (1933). An unhappy marriage to fascist armaments manufacturer Fritz Mandl ended in 1938 when Hedy gathered her jewels, left a dinner party, and fled to Paris. There she was discovered by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Louis B. Mayer and offered a Hollywood contract.

Hedy Lamarr the day she arrived in Hollywood
‘Hedy Lamarr the day she arrived in Hollywood’ © Mirrorpix, Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group/SSPL

Over the next 20 years Hedy left her mark on film history by playing a succession of glamorous, sensual characters in films like Algiers (1938), Boom Town (1940), White Cargo (1942), and Samson and Delilah (1949). In her private life Hedy enjoyed painting, collecting art, people-watching at Hollywood parties and—most surprising to those who knew her only as a sex symbol—inventing.

Hedy Lamarr painting at home
‘Hedy Lamarr painting at home’, c. 1960s © Mirrorpix, Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group/SSPL

Hedy’s beautiful image concealed an interest in engineering and an intellect as sharp as a tack. ‘Hedy invented as a hobby,’ writes her biographer Richard Rhodes.

‘Since she made two or three movies a year, each one taking about a month to shoot, she had spare time to fill… When she was a girl, her father, a Viennese banker, had encouraged her interest in how the world worked, taking walks with her and explaining the mechanics of the machinery they encountered… She also had a keen sense of the world’s large and small failings, some of which she decided she could fix. In Hollywood she set up an inventor’s corner in the drawing room of her house, complete with a drafting table and lamp and all the necessary drafting tools.’

When the United States entered WWII, Hedy endeavoured to help her adopted country in the fight against the Nazis. Together with her friend, the composer George Antheil, Hedy began work on a ‘Secret Communication System’ that relied on frequency-hopping (spread-spectrum technology) to unpredictably interchange the transmission of carrier waves. Using perforated records from player pianos, the idea was that the device could be used to remotely control torpedoes without the risk of interception and jamming by enemy forces.

Hedy and George were awarded US Patent 22923878 in August 1942, and they immediately offered up the Communication System for governmental use. Unfortunately, the US Navy dismissed the invention as being too complicated to implement, and at the time they did not want to use inventions made by non-military personnel.

The patent expired after the war without Hedy’s knowledge and was ironically rediscovered during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s. It has since been cited over 60 times.

Hedy could not have predicted the significance of her ideas at the time. She kept mum about her activities in the realm of science and technology; there is no mention of it in her 1966 autobiography, Ecstasy and Me. Neither is there any indication of it in the Daily Herald Archive, from which the images in this blog post were sourced. According to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times:

‘Lamarr never tried to promote her invention, considering it merely her contribution to the war effort.’

Spread-spectrum technology is still heavily in use by the military today and has had a major impact on the way we live our lives in a hyper-connected world. Thanks to Hedy Lamarr, we now enjoy Wi-Fi and GPS.

Neither Hedy nor George Antheil ever received a penny for the use of their invention.

Postcard of actress Hedy Kiesler, later known as Hedy Lamarr. Taken in Vienna for Metropole magazine. Used 22 May 1933.
Postcard of actress Hedy Kiesler, later known as Hedy Lamarr. Taken in Vienna for Metropole magazine. Used 22 May 1933 © Mirrorpix, Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group/SSPL

It was only in the last decade of her life that the brains behind Hedy Lamarr’s beauty were revealed for the world to see. And even then, people had a hard time believing her intelligence was genuine. To quote Bombshell director Alexandra Dean:

‘I think it took a while for the world to catch up with Hedy Lamarr. I can say with confidence that she was 100 years ahead of her time.’

It’s nice to see this remarkable inventor finally getting the credit she deserves. I have a feeling she will prove an inspiration to many young girls from here on out.

6 comments on “Forgotten Women in STEM: Hedy Lamarr

  1. What a great post and choice of images from the Daily Herald archive full of rare and lost images very interested in the image for Metropole magazine ..there is a photographer credit in bottom right corner which I can’t decipher ..someone who had a studio in Vienna ( Wien) collecting and researching photographers based there then..please share identity if you can make out name

    1. Hi Terence,

      Many thanks for the comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I tried to make out the photographer’s name on the Metropole postcard but it’s quite blurry and illegible. I tried a few Google search guesses but no luck so far.

  2. Love this and excited about this series! I’m so glad that in recent years more and more people are uncovering the immense contributions women have made to STEM fields throughout history. So many women were overlooked either because they worked with their husbands or were never taken seriously. I remember a podcast once telling a story of a woman who married a man in the late 1700s so she could have access to his telescope and she discovered a number of comets, which he then claimed as his. Just imagine what we could have done with open access to libraries and tools over the last few centuries. Looking forward to the rest of this – I’m so glad you’re writing about amazing women!

    1. Thank you so much, Katy! I’m excited to dig up more stories about amazing women in our archive.

  3. Super sleuthing! Loved reading this, Kendra, and can’t wait for more in this series.

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