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Hedy LAMARR, from cinema to the technological revolution

« Hope and curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. The unknown was always so attractive to me...and still is.  »  - Hedy Lamarr

Portrait of Hedy Lamarr from an ad, photo of Clarence Sinclair (1940)

The 20th century saw the emergence of personalities whose impact transcends the boundaries of time and space. Among these eminent figures is Hedy Lamarr, "the most beautiful woman in film", a woman whose life and achievements reach far beyond the cinema screen into the realms of technology and innovation. Her creative genius and ingenuity revolutionized the world of wireless communications, making her much more than just a film icon.


Hedy Lamarr was born under the name Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, on November 9 1914. Her father, Emil Kiesler, was a bank deputy director, and her mother, Gertrud Lichtwitz, was a concert pianist. She received an education combining science and the arts, learning several languages in a privileged environment, as well as ballet and piano.

She became an actress at the age of 16, to help her parents financially during the 1930s. She eventually dropped out of school to work in Germany with Max Reinhardt, a famous producer. From 1933 onwards, however, she pursued her career in the United States under the stage name Hedy Lamarr, moving into Hollywood cinema.

From actress to inventor

In the United States, she met pianist George Antheil, with whom she held passionate discussions about communication systems. Thanks to her memory of the plans she had seen with her former husband, Friederich Mandl, she succeeded in setting up a radio-frequency rocket guidance system. The idea was above all to put an end to the "torpedoing of passenger liners".

The system, based on a transmitter-receiver system, enables radio-controlled torpedoes to change transmission frequency, in particular to avoid detection by enemies. It simultaneously varies the frequencies of its transmitter and receiver according to the same recorded code. Together with her friend George Antheil, they describe the invention as a "secret communication system".

Copy (truncated) of the U.S. patent application filed by Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil (1941) US Patent Office

For the record, her name is spelt incorrectly on the patent application: the U.S. Patent Office mixed up her stage name, Hedy Lamarr, with her real name, Hedwig Kiesler.

At the time, the Navy found the invention impossible to realize, and so was unable to implement it. It was not used for the first time until 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. It wasn't until the invention was in the public domain that it began to be used everywhere, in the 1980s.


Hedy Lamarr didn't hear about the use of her patent until 1973 when she was featured in a press release for "National Inventors Day". By then, she was already 59 years old, and tried in vain to obtain financial compensation for her invention, despite having exceeded the legal 6-year period for doing so, according to American legislation. This compensation was later estimated at $30 billion.

Finally, it was not until 1997 that she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation prize, at the age of 82, for her contribution to society.

She died three years later, on January 19, 2000, and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.


To this day, many technologies such as global positioning systems (GPS) and Wi-Fi still use this transmission principle. Hedy Lamarr is still recognized for her scientific contribution and continues to receive tributes, for example with the staging of plays, in France. Her memory also lives on through various nods, such as the doodle set up by Google on her 101st birthday.

Doodle in tribute to Hedy Lamarr, posted on November 9, 2015 (source)

Written Lorena G. and edited by Tiffanie C.




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