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Growing up in Austria-Hungary, Hedy Lamarr had two great passions: acting and inventing. She’s best known for her work in Hollywood, stunning American audiences with her beauty and compelling dramatic talents. But recently she’s earned recognition for her technological contributions as well. She and her friend, the composer George Antheil, received a patent for radio-frequency technology that is now valued at over 300 Billion dollars. Because of Hedy, your family can safely send secure text messages and access WIFI.
Our narrator this episode, actress Tatiana Maslany, has also found success on screen. She received an Emmy and was nominated for a Golden Globe after her incredible performance in the “Orphan Black” television series. This summer, she’ll star in HBO’s limited series, “Perry Mason.”
TATIANA MASLANY Once upon a time, there was a girl who would grow up to achieve great fame on the silver screen. But this movie star would also lead a little-known double life, as a gifted inventor. Her name was Hedy.
MASLANY As a child, Hedy lived in Vienna, Austria. Her mother, Gertrud, was a concert pianist. Like her mother, Hedy loved the arts. She played piano and attended the opera. She also loved to take long walks with her father, Emil, a bank director. He understood—and shared—Hedy’s curiosity about the world around her.
As they walked throughout Vienna, Emil would explain to Hedy how the things they saw worked—like the electric streetcars passing by, or the airplanes flying up in the sky. Hedy wanted to understand everything, and Emil was happy to help her learn.
But Hedy didn’t simply dream of understanding the world around her—she got to work doing. One day, she took apart her music box to study it. Hedy carefully examined all its complicated parts. Then she put it back together, all by herself.
She was only five years old.
MASLANY I’m Tatiana Maslany. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Hedy Lamarr.
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MASLANY Hedy was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. An only child, she loved sneaking off to the movie theater. When she returned home, she would recreate the stories with her dolls on a makeshift stage underneath her father’s desk.
“All my life, I had loved to playact and pretend,” she once said.
Hedy didn’t attend school. Instead, she was privately tutored. By age ten, she could play piano, dance, and even speak four languages. When she was twelve, she won a beauty contest in Vienna. Hedy didn’t quite know how to feel about that—“the brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think,” she’d later say.
MASLANY At the same time, Hedy dreamed of being on stage. At sixteen, she enrolled in acting classes at a famous director’s school in Vienna. Later, she got work at a movie studio as a “script girl”—a person who ensured that what was filmed matched what was in the script.
Just as Hedy had wanted to understand inventions like her music box, now she wanted to understand acting performances. She worked hard to master her craft, always studying other people’s words and mannerisms.
Soon, Hedy was offered an opportunity to be an extra in a film. It wasn’t a big break, but it was Hedy’s first step toward stardom.
MASLANY Hedy’s European acting career grew swiftly. At just seventeen, she snagged a small speaking part in a German comedic film, Storm in a Water Glass. The next year, Hedy had her first lead role in the film No Money Needed. Her next role led to fame—and scandal. She played a young wife in the controversial film Ecstasy, which was banned in both Germany and the United States. Hedy worried it might be difficult to get other roles, but soon she was cast as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in a play. She got rave reviews.
One of her admirers was a wealthy businessman named Fritz Mandl. He manufactured and sold weapons to armies. Hedy fell in love with Fritz, and at just eighteen, she married him. Her parents weren’t pleased. As Jewish people, they didn’t like that Fritz had ties to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and to the rising Nazi Party, which spread hatred.
During her marriage to Fritz, Hedy didn’t do much acting. She hosted fabulous parties at their fancy home. Sometimes, military leaders attended those parties and talked about their weapons and plans.
By 1937, Hedy knew she no longer wanted to stay in Austria, nor in her marriage to Fritz. Around him, she was “like a doll . . . having no mind, no life” of her own. But she was afraid that Fritz would not let her go.
As legend has it, Hedy hatched a daring, dramatic plan to escape: First, she hired a maid who looked like her to help out during a party. That night, while the maid slept in Hedy’s bed, Hedy put on a maid’s uniform which hid valuable jewels that she’d sewn inside. Then, on a bicycle, her path lit only by moonlight, Hedy pedaled away from her mansion and toward freedom.
MASLANY Hedy arrived in London, ready to restart her acting career. The important Hollywood studio chief Louis B. Mayer was so impressed by Hedy’s talent that he offered her a contract with MGM, his movie studio. Hedy turned him down!
Hedy knew working with MGM was her best chance of making it in Hollywood, but she wanted a better contract. She thought up a plan to convince Louis. First, Hedy booked a ticket on the same ship he was taking back to America. Onboard, she wore her finest clothing and worked her charm each time she ran into Louis and his wife, Margaret. They knew she had what it took to be a star and that MGM needed to sign her. Louis offered Hedy a better deal, and this time she accepted.
The only problem was her name. “Hedwig Kiesler” didn’t sound glamorous enough for Hollywood. It was Margaret, staring out at the ocean, who helped come up with the perfect last name, Lamarr.
By the time the ship docked in New York City, reporters and photographers were waiting on the shore, ready to snap the first photos of MGM’s newest starlet: Hedy Lamarr.
MASLANY Although Hedy spoke four languages, at the time she sailed to America she didn’t know much English. It only took six months of lessons before she was ready to star in her first Hollywood movie, Algiers.
Nobody knew how American audiences would react to this new film actress. One viewer said that when Hedy’s face first appeared on the big screen, the whole audience gasped.
Suddenly, Hedy was on the cover of all the movie magazines. People called her “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Her iconic face inspired Disney’s Snow White and the original Catwoman.
The movie studio kept Hedy busy. She worked long hours, filming six days a week. She starred in multiple movies each year, acting with big stars from that time, like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, and Judy Garland.
Hedy herself quickly became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
MASLANY As busy as she was with her acting career, Hedy still had time for fun. She loved scavenger hunts and playing charades. Her hobby was tinkering and inventing.
“All creative people want to do the unexpected,” she once said.
She even turned a room of her house into an inventor’s workshop. Some of its tools were from the famous aviator Howard Hughes, a friend who shared her passion. There, after she returned home from a long day on set, Hedy’s brilliant mind became the star.
She didn’t have to work for ideas; they came to her naturally, much as they had during her curiosity-filled childhood.
Inspired by fish and birds, she designed better wings for Howard’s airplanes.
Thinking of how it could be difficult to get soldiers and travelers soda to drink, Hedy invented a flavor cube that would turn plain water into fizzy cola.
Wanting a place to put used tissues, she invented a paper fold that worked like a pocket on tissue boxes. Worrying about lost pets, she came up with a glow-in-the-dark collar. Her ideas were boundless.
It was at a friend’s dinner party that Hedy got the spark for her most important invention.
MASLANY In 1940, World War II was raging in Europe, and the Atlantic Ocean was one of the most dangerous places to be. German U-boats kept attacking ships, including ones filled with refugees. Hedy worried about her own mother, who was preparing to sail to safety in the United States. A torpedo could sink her mother’s ship.
At a dinner party, Hedy struck up a conversation with the composer, George Antheil. The topic turned to the war and military weapons—which Hedy remembered much about, from her marriage to Fritz. George himself had been a weapons inspector. Hedy wondered if the US military had a problem with their system for guiding torpedoes: enemies could intercept radio signals to make the torpedoes go off course. George agreed that was a problem. And, like Hedy, he enjoyed tinkering to solve problems.
The pair began working on a technology to make radio frequencies change according to a code. Doing so could make it difficult for enemies to intercept messages, securing radio communications. According to Hedy, she came up with the idea, and George knew how to implement it. They even drew upon his experience with pianos to help design their technology. The pair called their invention a “frequency hopping” system.
After months of work, they filled out an application for a patent. A patent is a license from the government that gives an inventor the right to their creation—so no one else can copy it!
On August 11, 1942, Hedy and George received a US Patent! Right away, they shared it with the US Navy to put it to use. By then, America was at war, and Hedy wanted to do whatever she could to help the country win.
MASLANY To Hedy’s dismay, the US Navy didn’t have the resources to use their invention right away. Recognizing its value, though, they classified it, making it secret—and preventing Hedy and George from further developing it themselves.
Hedy still wanted to do whatever it took to defeat the enemy. She considered quitting Hollywood to join the National Inventors Council, to create other inventions to support the wartime effort. But officials told her she could help the most with her star power.
Hedy got to work traveling the country to sell war bonds—a special type of loan that helped the US government fund its military efforts during World War II.
Through her appearances and promotions, Hedy sold $25 million in war bonds, which is over $340 million in today’s money. She also volunteered to entertain the troops. She danced with soldiers to lift their spirits. She even washed dishes. Finally, in 1945, the war ended with victory for the United States and the Allies.
MASLANY In 1953, Hedy realized another dream: She finally became a US citizen. The country she’d worked tirelessly to protect during the war she could now call her home.
Hedy continued starring in films, including the famous biblical epic Samson and Delilah and the hit comedy My Favorite Spy. Sometimes, Hedy was frustrated by the poor quality of the scripts she was offered. So she began producing her own films, too: The Strange Woman in 1946, Dishonored Lady in 1947, and The Loves of Three Queens in 1954. It was unusual for an actress to break away from the powerful studios and create her own art, but that didn’t stop Hedy.
Hedy famously married six times, and she had three children. She retired from acting in 1958, and two years later, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
MASLANY Hedy once called her famously beautiful face her “misfortune.” She saw it as a mask she could not remove, one that made it hard for people to see the person she was, and the ideas she had.
For decades, nobody knew about Hedy’s work as an inventor. But that didn’t mean they didn’t know about her invention. Before the patent expired in 1959, their technology was used by a military contractor to develop sonobuoys. These are devices that help detect submarines in the water. Hedy’s invention kept evolving from that point on. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, US torpedoes incorporated frequency-hopping technology based on her work.
MASLANY By the early 1980s, the frequency-hopping technology was finally declassified by the military. This meant that other inventors and companies could use it—and they eagerly did. Today, it’s part of what keeps electronic communications, like text messages, private. It’s also used in GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and expensive military satellites. How much do experts estimate the technology is worth today? Over $30 billion dollars. Yet Hedy and George never received any payment for their invention.
People finally did begin to recognize George and Hedy for their work, before Hedy passed away in 2000. They received the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997. Asked how she felt about the award, Hedy said, “It’s about time”!
The podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Our Executive Producers are Elena Favilli and Joy Fowlkes. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. This episode was written by Rebecca Behrens and edited by Joy Fowlkes. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi who has also sound designed this episode. Mattia Marcelli is the sound mixer.