There are few women in technology is the message we have been getting. Would you believe that a young female movie star invented spectrum radio, the technology that made the wireless phone possible in 1942? Meet Hedy Lamarr, the glamorous Hollywood starlet, who was born in Austria in 1914 and started her film career after meeting Louie B. Mayer in London. According to Wikipedia, “In Hollywood, she was invariably cast as the archetypal glamorous seductress of exotic origins. Lamarr played opposite the era’s most popular leading men. Her many films include Boom Town (1940) with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, Comrade X with Gable, White Cargo (1942), and Tortilla Flat (1942) with Tracy and John Garfield. In 1941, Lamarr was cast alongside Lana Turner and Judy Garland in Ziegfeld Girl.”
I’ll be honest, I’ve heard of Hedy Lamarr but I’m much more familiar with Hedley Lamarr, the character from Blazing Saddles, the 1974 Mel Brook’s movie that teenage boys and (if the truth be told) a lot of guys my age still think of as the best movie ever. I found out recently that it’s an unfortunate use of a beautiful and intelligent woman’s name.
Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer prize winning author, has written a biography about Hedy Lamarr and if it was fiction, no one would believe it. Rhodes published his book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World . I’m not going to give a book review here, but it is a fascinating story of a life well lived and a legacy far beyond the black and white movies she stared in. The life of a movie star in Hollywood in the 1930s left her with time to fill and instead of going out to parties, she would spend her time inventing. Some people took up musical instruments as a hobby, but Hedy’s hobby was inventing. “She invented to bring order to a world she thought chaotic,” Rhodes writes.
Here are a few of the highlights:
- Howard Hughes once lent her a pair of chemists to develop a bouillon-like cube which would turn into a bubbly soft drink when water was added – It was a flop
- George Antheil, a composer and inventor, was a neighbor of Hedy’s. During World War II, she and Antheil started to collaborate in conversation about how to use radio waves to interrupt the path of the enemy’s torpedoes.
- .During development of a radio controlled torpedo, Hedy discovered that the design could be easily jammed, so she came up with the idea of “hopping of frequencies”, which ultimately solved the problem.
- Lamarr and Antheil were granted a patent for their invention in August 1942 and the US Navy investigated the technology, but did not adopt it.
- The invention was not implemented until 1963 during the Cuban missal crisis and in 1997 Lamarr was recognized for her contribution by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Hedy was married 6 times, had 3 children, and performed in over 30 movies. She died in 2000 just 3 years after she was recognized by the wireless technology industry for her invention. The Hedy Lamarr Foundation opens with the words – Be Brilliant, Beautiful, and Bold along with the Hedy Lamarr quote, “Hope and Curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. That’s the way I was. The unknown was always so attractive to me. . . and still is.” The foundation’s mission is dedicated to the next generation.
The Hedy Lamarr Foundation plans to deliver educational and inspirational information that promotes self-discovery and social accountability.
Hedy Lamarr was a phenomenally beautiful, intelligent, creative, witty, opinionated, passionate woman who believed strongly in cultivating inner strength. In addition to being a world famous movie star, wife and mother, she was a visionary inventor twenty years ahead of her time.
Hedy Lamarr encompasses the essence of wholeness, diversity and grace. Through the foundation, this incredible spirit will live on to inspire many more generations to achieve their dreams and find the confidence to uncover their higher purpose.
Most women in technology today probably do not know about Ms Lamarr, either as an actress or an inventor, but they owe her legacy much. I am in awe of her strength and determination, even when the outcomes failed or were ignored. Women in technology have much to learn from her – we all have much to learn from her.
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