Known for her films and good looks, actress Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor who helped lead the way for technological breakthroughs we rely on today.

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hedy Lamarr was known as the most beautiful woman in film. She inspired the image for pop culture figures like Snow White and Catwoman, but in addition to her famous face, she left behind a legacy that was dismissed for decades. As Lamarr said herself, “I wanted to tell my life story…because it’s unbelievable—the opposite of what people think.”

This quote begins Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a documentary that dove into the star’s untold history, featuring the tapes from a 1990 interview with Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks—the only recorded interview in which Lamarr opens up about her life. In it, Lamarr discusses her invention of “frequency hopping,” a groundbreaking concept that laid the foundation for today’s spread-spectrum technology, which allows for the use of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS without interference.

Bombshell director Alexandra Dean said she was looking for a way to inject Lamarr’s voice into the documentary, but struggled because of how hard it was for the actress to tell her story in the first place. “She wasn’t believed…and she was too proud to keep insisting,” Dean said. Thus, Lamarr’s pioneering work in technology went ignored and unrecognized, until her Forbes interview lifted the veil.

Hedy Lamarr in 1941's "Ziegfeld Girl." Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Lamarr was born in Austria in 1914 and displayed a quick intelligence—at the age of 5, she took apart a music box and put it back together just to see how it worked. Having grown up in the cultural hub of Vienna, she also developed a passion for the arts and began acting in European films at age 17.

When she was 19, Lamarr married 33-year-old arms dealer Fritz Mandl, but she felt that he saw her as a pretty accessory he could control, and not as an intellectual equal. She formulated a plan to escape the loveless relationship and fled to London, where she met Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Although she spoke limited English, Lamarr learned just enough to negotiate a high-paying contract with Mayer.

Lamarr’s entrepreneurial spirit continued to flourish after moving to the United States.  She became close with pilot and engineer Howard Hughes, who gifted her a chemistry set which she kept in her trailer to tinker on inventions after filming. Lamarr decided Hughes’ planes flew too slowly and, after researching the fastest bird and the fastest fish, she combined their rounded features to sketch a more aerodynamic design. In Lamarr’s retelling, Hughes told her, “You’re a genius.”

Despite the glamor of Hollywood, Lamarr couldn’t ignore the rising casualties of World War II, and she wanted to help the war effort. Allied forces could not defend against the German submarines sinking their ships because the enemy would identify and “jam” the frequency controlling an Allied torpedo, shutting down the weapon. In response, Lamarr developed the idea of a transmitter and receiver that simultaneously switched frequencies in a randomized pattern—like a shared code—so that the enemy couldn’t track the transmission. Thus, her application of frequency hopping began taking form.

She confided in her friend George Anthiel, an experimental musician who used his pianist background to help Lamarr. The two used a concept similar to a player piano—which plays on its own by scrolling paper with holes in it to indicate notes—to shuffle the frequencies.

Hedy Lamarr in 1938. Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Working with a physicist to further develop their idea, and Lamarr and Anthiel were granted a patent in 1941. They immediately donated the patent to the Navy, but it was rejected. Lamarr joined the government’s bond tour to entertain deployed soldiers and raised $343 million for the war effort, but was once again forced to reduce herself to star power and looks.

Lamarr was determined to continue developing her project, but was not given the chance. In 1942, the government seized Lamarr’s patent as “alien property” due to her lack of US citizenship. “They use me for selling bonds and I’m not an alien, but when I invent something for this country, I am an alien,” Lamarr said.

She threw herself into acting—starring alongside Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart, and working with famed directors such as Cecil B. DeMille—but Lamarr remained unsatisfied with the derogatory and unchallenging roles she was given. Although movie stars who produced their own films were then unheard, Lamarr continued to be a woman ahead of her time and established her own production company, Mars Film Corporation,  in 1946.

Yet as she built her production company, Lamarr never gave up on her frequency hopping invention. In letters from 1969, Lamarr asked a friend in the military to find out what happened to the patent, unaware that it could expire. If her frequency hopping patent expired, Lamarr and Anthiel would no longer own the idea, be credited for it, or compensated for its use.

But around 1958, before the patent expired, the Navy had started using portable devices called sonobuoys to detect submarines underwater. Inventor Romuald Ireneus specifically credited Lamarr’s and Anthiel’s patent for the sonobuoy’s functionality, but did not realize who its creators were (the patent reflected Lamarr’s legal married name, Hedy Kiesler Markey). By 1962, after Lamarr’s patent had expired, numerous naval ships were equipped with frequency-hopping radios, which were used throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

As Lamarr’s invention became useful at a critical time for the country, she and Anthiel would have received a good deal of money and recognition if they still owned the patent. But Anthiel and Lamarr were never compensated, and Lamarr assumed that she would never receive credit for her work. 

“I know what I did; I don’t care what other people say about me,” she said.

Decades later, community activist Dave Hughes began working to connect remote communities to the Internet, and used a grant from the National Science Federation to research previous advances in wireless technology. Hughes received awards and recognition for these trailblazing efforts, and he said that his work was based on one patent: Lamarr’s frequency hopping invention. Her idea led to techniques that allow signals to securely and simultaneously share a common wide-frequency band without much interference among multiple users—techniques that are critical with the continuing increase in wireless device use. 

Although he initially didn’t know the patent belonged to Lamarr, Hughes “was just blown away” once he learned about the connection, Dean said. “And he then called attention to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.” 

Fifty-six years after she received the patent, Lamarr was presented with the 1997 Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award. She was hailed with additional awards from communication and security groups like Lockheed Martin, Milstar, and the Navy, thanking her for her contributions to the advancement of spread-spectrum technology. Lamarr’s son, Anthony Loder, accepted these honors on his mother’s behalf, not long before Lamarr passed away on Jan. 19, 2000.

Dean said she credits Loder as the first person working to bring Lamarr’s story to light, having advocated for his mother’s recognition for years. “There is now a tsunami of information about her, but back when we started the documentary, there was a trickle, and he and I really collaborated to set the record straight,” Dean said.

However, there are those who are still reluctant to credit Lamarr with being a technological pioneer. Dean attributed this to the fact that many hardworking scientists never receive any recognition for their work, which makes it hard to see a glamorous actress who has already received so much attention also be given scientific recognition.

Critics point to the fact that others across the world were working on concepts similar to frequency hopping at the same time as Lamarr and Anthiel, but the same can be said about many inventions throughout history, like those by Thomas Edison. 

“Hedy’s and George’s idea was leagues ahead of everyone else’s, and it also had a sketched out, practical application, so they really were the most advanced to posit it at that very moment,” Dean said. “It’s almost like these ideas, they rise in our collective unconsciousness, and certain inventors are able to receive them and transmit them to us.” 

Hedy Lamarr—selflessly, thanklessly—was able to do just that.


Allison McLellan is a writer and editor in the New York area. She enjoys planning trips to different cities to see her favorite bands and turning her daily life into an internal stand-up monologue. When she isn’t writing about technology, music, or conspiracy theories, you can find her in the woods with a good book. She can be reached at allisonmmclellan@gmail.com.

Elisa Macellari is a Thai-Italian illustrator and graphic designer based in Milan. She specializes in children’s illustration and editorial illustration. Elisa likes colorful things, wild animals, jungle, mysterious creatures, strange objects and tom yum soup. Her illustrations have been exhibited in Italy and abroad.