Hedy Lamarr: The Movie Star Scientist

Imagine this idea for a movie:

Setting: Hollywood in the early 1940s. World War II is raging.

Main Character: One of Tinseltown’s brightest stars, billed as “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.”

Plot: This loveliest of luminaries has set up a workshop in her house and, in her spare time, is working feverishly on a scientific discovery that could help defeat the Nazis.  

Stop right there. The studios of the era would have turned it down immediately. A woman scientist would be stretching credibility. A beautiful woman scientist who is also a movie star would be utterly beyond belief.

Truth stranger than fiction, anyone? This is actually a true story starring Hedy Lamarr. In her day, Hedy was as famous as Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis and she played opposite Clark Gable, James Steward and Spencer Tracey. Her name was in lights on movie marquees from New York City to Small Town, USA. Her face graced the covers of countless magazines. Her box-office appeal was through the roof. The public couldn’t get enough of her.

“The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” was indeed a scientist in her spare time and nobody could call her domain “soft science”: Hedy Lamarr was working on weapons technology. Determined to help the allies win the war, she had come up with an idea for a torpedo guided by radio signals that couldn’t be intercepted by the enemy. She called her discovery “frequency hopping.”

Star Creativity

If creativity, scientific or otherwise, is the capacity to see connections between seemingly unrelated things, Hedy certainly fills the bill. Astonishingly, inspiration originally dawned on her while attending an art exhibit that included 8 player pianos. If two pianos could be “programmed” to play exactly the same note at the same time, why couldn’t an emitter and a receiver be made to jump to exactly the same frequency at exactly the same time? With the help of her composer friend and co-scientist, George Antheil, Hedy set up a workroom in her house, put in a drawing board, filled it with engineering textbooks and went to work.

Problem-Solving More Fun than Parties

The obvious question: Aside from patriotism, which can be shown in far less taxing ways, what could have motivated a star like Hedy Lamarr to stay home with her drafting table when she could have spent every evening at glittering soirees and swank nightclubs? According to her son, she preferred brainwork to nightlife. “My mother was such a creative person--I mean, nonstop solution-finding. If you talked about a problem, she had a solution." Hedy’s own explanation for her moonlighting doubtless resonates with every scientist, "Hope and curiosity about the future. That's the way I was. The unknown was always so attractive to me... and still is."

The other obvious question: How did an actress acquire the knowledge of torpedoes and radio frequencies necessary to even begin her investigations? As luck would have it, her first husband was a very rich arms dealer and Hedy’s mind was a steel trap. The marriage didn’t last long but the conversations about weapons and technology stayed with her.

A Matter of Life and Death

In the end, Hedy had a still more urgent reason than most Americans to put her mind to technology that could help defeat the Germans. Originally from Austria, she was Jewish and had left family and friends behind in occupied Europe. Hitler had to be defeated and she wasn’t going to stand by and rely on others take care of the problem.

Unhappy Ending

She worked and worked and eventually sent her plans for “frequency hopping” to the United States military. She didn’t ask for a penny and turned over all patent rights to them. Until this point the story looks to be headed toward a glorious and triumphant ending, but that was not to be. The military thanked her kindly then barely took notice of her ideas. Her solutions were never taken seriously. In that day and age most men couldn’t imagine that a woman, especially a gorgeous movie star, would have the brains for such an undertaking.

It wasn’t until many years later that someone else came up with similar technology, which would become an essential aspect of GPS, wifi and cell phones. Finally in 1997 her ideas were officially recognized and she received several awards. Unfortunately, by then she was too old and weak to attend the ceremonies and she died only a few years 


Wasted Talent

The military men couldn’t get past her female physique. Would a handsome leading man’s ideas have been taken seriously? One can never know, but it does seem more likely. The idea that a scientific brain just might be lurking behind a beautiful male face might have been at least considered long enough to give his ideas a look. That a brilliant mind could lie behind lustrous black hair and long-lashed green eyes was a notion whose time had not come.  

For Women in Science

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