SciTech

Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell portrays Lamarr as inventor

Credit: Rebecca Enright/ Credit: Rebecca Enright/ Hedy Lamarr in 1941. She patented a form of radio communication that forms the basis of Wifi today.  (credit: Courtesy of Film Star Vintage on Flickr) Hedy Lamarr in 1941. She patented a form of radio communication that forms the basis of Wifi today. (credit: Courtesy of Film Star Vintage on Flickr)

Alexandra Dean’s new movie, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, documents Hedy Lamar’s life as an inventor. The movie claims that her beauty often stood in the way of her getting credit for her inventions.

Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) was an Austrian-born actress that was marketed by MGM to be the “most beautiful woman on screen.” Some of her most popular films are Samson and Delilah (1949), Algiers (1938), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), and Come Live With Me (1940). She was also infamous for her role in Gustav Machatý's 1933 film, Ecstasy, where she was shown orgasming and nude on screen.

However, Hedy Lamarr not only shattered stereotypes in the film industry, she also was an inventor of technology that is still relevant today. Although she had no formal engineering education background, she worked with American aviation magnate Howard Hughes on an improved design for plane wings, and on a method of wireless communication with American pianist, composer and friend George Antheil.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy used submarine’s radio controlled torpedoes to combat German U-Boats. However, these torpedoes could be detected and “jammed” by broadcasting at the same frequency as the torpedo, to veer the missile off-course. Lamarr and Antheil’s solution was to invent radio hopping — method that would allow the signals to be sent using random frequencies at short intervals. The specific code for the order of the sequence of frequencies would only be held by the controlling ship and the receiving torpedo. This was groundbreaking, and inspired by piano keys. A piano roll would decide the randomness of the frequencies.

This invention was not taken seriously by the U.S. government which was increasingly skeptical of inventions from outside the military. In the movie, biographer Richard Rhodes said “The Navy basically told her, ‘You know, you’d be helping the war a lot more, little lady, if you got out and sold war bonds rather than sat around trying to invent.’”

It was only three decades later, in 1997, that Lamarr and Antheil were awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. Also in 1997, Lamarr became the first female to win the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award for her significant contributions to society with her creative lifetime achievements in the arts and sciences.

While the movie by Alexandra Dean manages to convey her underrepresented contributions to science, Vanity Fair’s review of the movie claims that “presenting her entirely as a victim oversimplifies the contradictions of a complex character whose vanity participated in her own stereotyping, and whose life decisions often seemed as dank as her intellect was supposedly bright.” Lamarr’s off-screen personality was tumultuous, with her first appearing to be disinterested in her looks and then, later in life, becoming nearly addicted to plastic surgery. Not to discredit her contributions, but only to recognize her as a less-than-composed woman one must question the state of her financial matters and her denial of her Jewish ethnicity. Taking her life into account, and her contributions as a trailblazer in film and in science, it is important to recognize her as a human, complex, flawed woman that worked despite all the odds against her.