Hedy Lamarr: Not Your Average Movie Star
Hedy Lamarr, a woman once praised as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” That is what she is known for. Or at least, that’s what I garnered from her JWA profile and further research.
I actually knew nothing about her until I found her on the Jewish Women’s Archive and clicked on her profile, interested to see what made this woman so special in addition to her startling beauty. After additional research I found out that yes, she was famous for being, as some called her, “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and for her nude scene in Ecstasy; I also learned that she wasn't well known for an altogether different contribution to this world: her patented invention that made WiFi and Bluetooth possible.
An example like no other, Hedy Lamarr, in addition to being an extremely successful actress, practiced electrical engineering in her free time at her home studio. Lamarr’s invention, "spread spectrum technology," was a system of signal hopping that prevented enemies from interfering with radio signals between a ship and its torpedoes. She created it to help fight the Nazis.
Yet when Lamarr tried to sell it to the Navy to help fight in WWII, she was told that selling kisses and war bonds would be more useful to the war efforts. Lamarr did both those things, in addition to signing over her patent to the Navy, leading others (building off of her patent) to profit off of Lamarr’s invention.
This invention, for which she received no compensation, is now valued at around $30 billion, enabling all types of wireless communications. It’s considered to be so secure that it is the technology protecting the U.S. nuclear codes.
Hedy Lamarr created her own reality: Hedy Lamarr was the one who got herself away from Hitler’s Europe and into a career with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios by booking passage for herself on the ship to America that she knew Louis B. Mayer would be on; Hedy Lamarr was the woman who came up with the most efficient airplane design for Howard Hughes; Hedy Lamarr was the one who came up with the idea of spread spectrum technology; And, despite living in a time when the intellectual opportunities for women were fewer than they are now (at least in the United States,) Hedy Lamarr came up with an idea that changed our whole world.
In addition to this, she was a famous actress. I don’t know about any of you, but I never knew that being an actress and an engineer and succeeding at both was a thing that could be done. But it has been done, thanks to Hedy Lamarr (as well as others after her, including Mayim Bialik, a neuroscientist on the Big Bang Theory and in real life!) To me, Hedy Lamarr's story is a perfect example of breaking free from stereotypes.
Hedy Lamarr was the epitome of beauty and brains in a time where only one was valued in women. She once said: “my face is a mask I cannot remove. I must always live with it. I curse it.” Our society sorts and places people into boxes. Why can’t beauty and brains coexist, and why should Lamarr’s beauty speak for her before she can define herself? Why do we put people into boxes, neglecting key parts of them so they fit into our narrow definitions of what is acceptable and what is not, especially if someone has the talent to do more? Why let society limit you when both you and society are better off without the labels?
We can learn from Hedy Lamarr that constricting yourself when you have the capacity to do more harms both you and society. And, speaking of boxes, we wouldn’t even have router boxes without her (which means we would not have the WiFi technology probably enabling you to read this right now).
So yes, you can be "Hedy Lamarr" and be smart.
In fact, Hedy Lamarr teaches us to be whatever the heck we want to be. Seriously, you can be an actress and an engineer. We can also learn from her that a person doesn’t have to be part of a movement to make a difference; doing what you love and breaking the mold of what society and your time period tells you can’t be done is a great way to do it. The only person that can define you is you, whether you are acknowledged for your contributions or not.
Though Hedy Lamarr’s appearance was famous, her brain and her patent was not; that, however, didn’t stop her from inventing. Although her recognition was delayed and her inventions waved aside at first, Lamarr didn’t stop. She did what she wanted to: both acting and engineering. And isn’t that the point of it all? In my mind, activism is fighting for the freedom of choice, and Lamarr created multiple paths for herself, in acting and in engineering.
One can only create the change they wish to see, and to me, Lamarr is the perfect example of someone with immense inner strength and the courage to create something from her inner beauty while the world focused on her outer beauty. Lamarr was someone smart and beautiful. She was someone who not only broke out of her box but ignored attempts that society made to place her into new ones.
Even though she has not been remembered as a beautiful actress and a brilliant inventor, her impact is as important as her communications system: Hedy Lamarr hopped between different frequencies, her complexity a force that could not be intercepted.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Landau, Hannah. "Hedy Lamarr: Not Your Average Movie Star." 1 April 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/breaking-mold-hedy-lamarr>.