Women’s History Month: a Profile on Hedy Lamarr

Reed Washington

In honor of International Women’s day last sunday (3/8/2020) and Women’s History Month (March), I want to talk about one woman who, unbeknownst to many, created the world as we know it, Hedy Lamarr. The famous actress who, in the golden age of Hollywood, worked for MGM under the marketing of the most beautiful women in the world, was more than just a pretty face. Lamarr, born Kiesler, grew up in Austria, her father, a banker, was an inquisitive man extremely interested in how things worked and he passed that on to his daughter throughout her childhood. They would often partake in your average father daughter activities like reading, playing games, and taking apart old clocks and putting them back together, giving Lamarr a hobby that she carried with her throughout her life.

She reached majority around the time that the Nazi party came to power and was married to a Nazi arms manufacturer. One might chalk this up to mere coincidence but as lamarr was jewish, I believe this was more intentional than is let on. She became as most females did in this time, though especially so for the wives of politicians, a figure head, a beautiful doll to be danced around at parties and then returned to her little glass box for safe keeping. She felt trapped and so she planned an escape, though she would “run away” for short bursts before her grand escape to see what worked. Her plan began with searching for lady’s maids with similar builds and features to that of her own. She would drug one and switch clothes with her, then proceed to ride a bike to the train station with only some cash and jewelry she had sewn into the lining of her coat. Lamarr took a train to Paris where she knew her husband would not try to retrieve her or risk public embarrassment. She was divorced, decided to meet with an MGM executive, and began her ascension to fame. 

While working for MGM Lamarr met with a wealthy airplane manufacturer, the were quick friends and, because he could see her engineering prowess, he gave her access to his facilities and employees. Here lamarr created the modern airplane, at the time planes were square and blocky which made them slow, lamarr decided that she would study the fastest animals and study what exactly it was that made them so fast. She decided to combine the body of a fish and the wings of a bird to create the airplane shape we are familiar with today.

Though one of her most important contributions to society is often overlooked, the invention of the predecessor to the internet, bluetooth and gps. During the war boats and submarines would shoot missiles that could be controlled using radio waves, the problem being that the signals could be easily intercepted and rerouted. Presented with a problem and for a cause she felt strongly about, she was a strong supporter of the war effort and would do anything she could to help often known to sell war bonds and perform for the troops, lamarr was determined to fix it. Her solution was a frequency hopping technology, where both the missile and the boat would operate on the same frequency and switch every few seconds meaning when the enemy had intercepted the missile it would switch frequencies and they would have to start over. There are many conflicting accounts as to what exactly was the inspiration for this invention stretching anywhere from a remote to a player piano. This invention could have potentially cut the war in half had it not been for a deep misogyny. You see, lamarr gave her patent to the U.S. government so that they could use it on their missiles and they disregarded the invention completely putting it in a drawer somewhere collecting dust.

More recently reports have surfaced saying that the frequency hopping technology was in fact used and that the U.S. government owed lamarr an estimated 30 billion dollars in back payments according to the Smithsonian. Though she died with little to no money on January 19th, 2000, in Casselbury, Florida. If you ask me,  I believe the government should use that money to support women in stem fields in Lamarr’s name to reinvigorate her legacy and avenge her life.