TODAY’S Google Doodle celebrates the 101st birthday of Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-American actress and inventor once described as “the most beautiful woman in the world”.
Born in 1914, Lamarr was one of the most popular actresses between the late 1930s and 1950s and starred alongside some of old Hollywood’s celebrated actors including Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart. In 1960 she received a star on the Hollywood Hall of Fame.
But it was her role as an inventor — she created some of the technology behind what we now know as Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth — and her tumultuous personal life that make her a fascinating historical character.
“We love highlighting the many good stories about women’s achievements in science and technology,” said Jennifer Hom from Google, where Lamarr holds a “kind of mythical status”.
“When the story involves a 1940s Hollywood star-turned-inventor who developed technologies we all use with our smartphones today… well, we just have to share it with the world.”
Here are five reasons why Hedy Lamarr is a woman worth knowing about.
SHE STARRED IN THE FIRST ONSCREEN ORGASM
One of Lamarr’s first film roles was in Ecstasy, a 1933 film about a young woman married to an indifferent older man. The film’s passionate nude scenes and a close up shot of 18-year-old Hedy’s face “in the precise moment of rapture” were deemed highly controversial.
Lamarr’s first husband, Austrian arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, hated the movie so much he reportedy bought as many copies of Ecstasy as he could, to prevent it from being screened in public.
Mandl was jealous and controlling, so Lamarr decided to flee Austria just as WWII was about to begin and booked a seat on a ship bound for Hollywood.
SHE HELPED INVENT THE TECHNOLOGY USED IN YOUR SMARTPHONE
Lamarr soon became bored by her Hollywood acting career and tried her hand at inventing. Some of her projects included an improved traffic light and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink, similar to Coca Cola.
“The first question always is, “What? A Hollywood star? What was she doing inventing some piece of electrical engineering?” Richard Rhodes, author of Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, told CBS News.
“She wanted to stop all the Hollywood stuff which she didn’t really enjoy,” he said.
The duo were desperate to help the Allied war effort and wanted to solve the problem of enemies blocking signals from radio-controlled missiles.
Using Antheil’s knowledge of pianos, they developed a way to prevent German submarines from jamming Allied radio signals, called “frequency hopping”.
“Hedy’s idea was if you could make both the transmitter and the receiver simultaneously jump from frequency to frequency, then someone trying to jam the signal wouldn’t know where it was,” said Mr Rhodes.
But the Navy turned their noses up at the idea and failed to implement the technology.
It wasn’t until 1998, when the patent had expired, that Lamarr and Antheil were credited for their invention. Wireless technology developer Wi-LAN Inc acquired a 49 per cent claim to the patent from Lamarr for an undisclosed amount of stock.
The duo were awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award and were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
“Frequency hopping” is behind some modern “spread-spectrum” technology, including GPS, Bluetooth, COFDM (used in Wi-Fi network connections) and CDMA, which is used in some mobile phones.
SHE WAS OBSESSED WITH HER LOOKS
“To the world, my mother was a screen legend, a beauty who had it all,” said Lamarr’s son Anthony Loder, following his mother’s death.
“But behind closed doors, she was addicted to drugs, terrified of losing her looks. Half her life was a glittering dream, but the second half was a tragic waste.”
Mr Loder described his mother’s changing figure as “Frankenstein’s monster”.
“She had her breasts enlarged, her cheeks raised, her lips made bigger, and much, much more,” he said. “She had plastic surgery thinking it could revive her looks and her career, but it backfired and distorted her beauty.”
“My face has been my misfortune,” Lamarr wrote in her 1966 autobiography Ecstasy and Me.
“It has attracted all the wrong people into my boudoir and brought me tragedy and heartache … My face is a mask I cannot remove.”
SHE LOVED TO SUE PEOPLE
Towards the end of her life, Lamarr became increasingly secluded and impoverished. Despite being married and divorced six times, she never found a meaningful connection.
“There were companions and sexual partners, but she never had a deep connection with anyone,” said her son Mr Loder.
In January 1966, she was arrested for shoplifting $US86 worth of goods from a department store. She divorced her fifth husband, Texan oil tycoon W Howard Lee, but claimed she lost out in the divorce settlement — she compensated by marrying her lawyer Lewis J Boies instead, according to a 2008 Marie Claire profile. “I was broke and hungry … I felt I had to marry,” she said.
She wasted her savings on ridiculous lawsuits, including one against a newspaper who ran an image of a two-headed goat called Hedy Lamarr.
“The only thing that saved her, not long before her death, was that a major computer company used her image in its packaging without permission, thinking she was dead,” said her son Anthony. “She sued and settled for around $3 million.”
SADLY, MOST REMEMBER LAMARR FOR HER BEAUTY, NOT HER INVENTIONS
Lamarr died from heart disease in 2000 at the age of 86.
“The boys abroad, during the Second World War, voted her the most desirable, beautiful actress or pin-up that they could possibly see,” writer Richard Rhodes told CBS News in 2012.
“So she had a great deal of fame and fortune, but not that inner satisfaction that she wanted in life.”
It was Lamarr herself who best summed up her tragic fall from grace: “To be a star is to own the world and all the people in it. “After a taste of stardom, everything else is poverty.”