Today is the 101st birthday of Hedy Lamarr, the vampy Hollywood star who was also an inventor. In celebration, today she gets a lavish Google doodle.
As Anne Helen Petersen recounted in her Scandals of Classic Hollywood piece on the Austrian-born actress, Lamarr first burst onto the international scene as the star of the very risque Ecstasy. It had nude bathing AND sexual intercourse! She was still a teenager when she made the movie, but it shaped her positioning in Hollywood for the rest of her life, essentially guaranteeing she always played the sexpot. “Over her Hollywood career, she would be cast as one “high class whore” after another—women whose beauty, and sexuality, make them natural victims of the world around them,” wrote Petersen.
But—like so many people in the public eye—she was a more complicated person than her image would suggest. The most outstanding example, as Smithsonian magazine tells: During World War II, Lamarr (who had been married to an arms manufacturer in Austria) teamed up with composer George Antheil to design “frequency hopping” system for jam-proof torpedo targeting, which “involved two motor-driven rolls, like those on a player piano, installed in the transmitter and aboard the torpedo and synchronized through 88 frequencies—matching the number of keys on a piano.” They were awarded a patent for their work, but it was never implemented. The war effort had other uses for Lamarr:
After they were awarded their patent on August 11, 1942, they donated it to the U.S. Navy—a patriotic gesture to help win the war. But Navy researchers, believing that a piano-like mechanism would be too cumbersome to install in a torpedo, didn’t take their frequency-hopping concept very seriously. Instead, Lamarr was encouraged to support the war effort by helping to sell war bonds, and she did: Under an arrangement in which she would kiss anyone who purchased $25,000 worth of bonds, she sold $7 million worth in one night.
But Smithsonian notes that in the 50s, engineers would begin playing around with Lamarr and Antheil’s designs. Their work would inform the research that would gradually develop into technologies like wifi. Lamarr is now in the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame, and in 1997, she was honored by the Electric Frontier Foundation.
It took years for Lamarr to get any serious recognition for this work, and in the meantime her reputation hardened into “unhappy faded star.” But gradually, her legacy has gotten a revamp. Thanks probably in no small part to the peculiar nature of information on the Internet—much of what was common knowledge and conventional wisdom prior to roughly 2004 just never ported over, combined with the virality of Quirky Historical Facts You Just Won’t Believe!—people are likely to be more familiar with Lamarr’s scientific exploits than her cinematic catalog. Gaze upon her patent, via the U.S. National Archives, and contemplate the posthumous twists a reputation can take.
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