The story sounds almost like a Hollywood plot, except it is true: A young starlet doing nude scenes as a teenager, goes on to invent a critical wartime technology that is ignored by the US Navy but ultimately forms the basis of WiFi and cell phones that we use today. Of course, I am talking about the life and times of Hedy Lamarr, the subject of a 2017 documentary film called Bombshell that is available from the streaming services.
She was also the subject of a 2011 biography from Richard Rhodes. I heard Rhodes back when he was promoting his book. Rhodes is the author of many intriguing history of science works, including the story of the Manhattan Project, and his book is worth reading. So is the film, which is also based on a 1990 taped interview that was recently found.
She is a fascinating study in how someone with both beauty and brains can not necessarily make the best of both thee worlds, but was constantly reinventing herself.
The movie traces her acting career and has various clips, including scenes from the provocative film Ecstasy, the one cited earlier that began her career and was banned by Hitler eventually. Lamarr was even the basis of one character in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.
Both the film and the book show how one of Lamarr’s many inventions, which she developed with her music composer neighbor George Antheil, came about through an odd inquiry. Lamarr was interested in a boob job and Antheil had written about early efforts in that area, again presaging another important intersection of Hollywood and technology. The duo went on to get a patent for a new technique for frequency-hopping radio communications. While not taken seriously at the time, it ultimately was deployed by the military in the 1960s during the cold war. While the technique involved piano rolls, the basis of frequency hopping continues to be used as part of spread-spectrum radio communications that are in common use today. Along the way, Lamarr made many movies and married and divorced six husbands, the first of whom was a Nazi arms merchant that got her interested in developing new technology for the war effort once she fled to America. She lived to be honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation a few years before she died in 2000.
It is hard for many of us to grok a movie star with her trips to the patent office and test tube rack in her trailer on the movie set, but she was the real deal.
Lamarr once said that “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” She was anything but.