Science Heroes: Hedy Lamarr

It’s the mid-1910s and the bustling city of Vienna, Austria is alive with gossip about the end of World War I and the fall of the Habsburg Austrian-Hungarian empire. Zippers have recently been invented, freeing women to move about much more comfortably than while wearing their restricting, recently abandoned, corset-bound attire. In a Jewish neighborhood outside the city proper, a young Hedwig (Hedy) Kiesler is growing up.

Born in November of 1914 as the only child to a bank director and former concert pianist, young Hedy’s favorite pastime was taking long walks with her father, listening to his explanations and descriptions about the inner workings of street cars, the printing press, and other fascinating contraptions. These frequent conversations about machines prompted a fascination with mechanical devices and inventions; Hedy could often be found disassembling and reconstructing various household objects [1].

In addition to these scientific interests inspired by her father, Hedy’s mother had introduced her to the theater. A gorgeous and talented young woman, Hedy was turning heads and became a well-known member of the acting community by the age of 16. This new life in the spotlight prompted a focus on theater, so Hedy’s fascination with inventing was often neglected. As her on-stage performances continued to draw crowds, Hedy garnered the attention of a wealthy (and somewhat infamous) arms dealer by the name Ferdinand Mandl.

Photograph of Hedy Lamarr [Source]

In 1933, the pair were quickly married following Hedy’s agreement to convert from Judaism to Catholicism and give up on her career in acting. Thus, she became Mrs. Mandl and, in this new role, was expected to graciously host Mandl’s high-powered and notorious business partners during their frequent visits, dinners, and business meetings. It is through her frequent encounters with Benito Mussolini and high-ranking members of the Nazi party that Hedy became aware of Hitler’s regime and the dangers he posed both to her country and, especially, to her Jewish relatives. Her revelation about her husband’s involvement with aiding the Nazi party coupled with his controlling and oppressive demeanor in their relationship took a toll on Hedy. Learning of Mandl’s dealings with Hitler was the last straw [2].

Hedy fled her marriage in 1937, escaping Austria and befriending the president of MGM Studios, Louis B. Mayer, along her journey to the United States. With his help, Hedy changed her last name to Lamarr, moved to Hollywood, and was catapulted into the celebrity sphere through her roles in multiple motion pictures. She was often referred to as “the most beautiful woman in the world” [3].

Now, you may be wondering how and why this gorgeous and glamorous actress came to be recognized as a science hero. Despite her fame and fortune in the United States, Hedy Lamarr was always preoccupied with news of U.S. involvement in World War II and its efforts to stop Hitler’s oppressive and horrific anti-Jewish actions and policies. Determined to do more than star in movies and read the news, Hedy partnered with a composer named George Antheil and, combining their shared love of inventions and her in-depth knowledge of secret Axis power military intelligence, the two created a useful invention designed to help the United States overthrow Hitler’s regime.

Lamarr and Antheil understood that the current day’s torpedo guidance systems were based in radio frequencies. While effective, this technology was easily intercepted and jammed by enemy ships, thus preventing the launched torpedoes from hitting their intended target. The two worked to overcome this important problem, understanding that a solution would lend the United States a significant advantage in the war. After countless trials-and-errors, Lamarr thought of a design and, with the help of Antheil, created a model that allowed both the radio transmitter and torpedo receiver to simultaneously move from frequency to frequency (like moving from one radio station to another), making the once easily blocked guidance frequency an un-jammable moving target. They named this concept “frequency hopping” [2].

A schematic from Lamarr’s frequency hopping patent. [Source]

After patenting this idea, Lamarr and Antheil sent their design to the U.S. Navy in 1942, confident that their groundbreaking invention would be quickly implemented. Unfortunately, and likely due to Lamarr’s celebrity status and gender, the Navy refused to use this impressive design. They instead told Lamarr that she should turn to other methods of war support, suggesting that she use her notoriety to sell war bonds and cease inventing in her free time, i.e., settle into a more appropriate ‘womanly’ role. Wanting to assist in any way she could, Lamarr took the suggestion and raised a present-day total of $343 million for the war effort [4].

Despite the Navy’s initial refusal to implement Lamarr and Antheil’s frequency hopping design, this invention was later recognized for its ingenuity and built upon by others (though after Lamarr’s patent had expired). Their design became the basis of a significant number of modern-day inventions including wireless communication systems, such as Bluetooth, GPS, and WiFi. Lamarr was not credited for her ingenuity for many years but was finally awarded the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation alongside George Antheil in 1997, and she later received the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award—the first woman ever to do so [1].

Perhaps due to the Navy’s failure to implement her design, her lack of accreditation for the idea, or resulting from her early departure from Hollywood in 1958, Hedy Lamarr lived the end of her life as a recluse. She died in 2000 at the age of 85 while living in central Florida. Lamarr has since been posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014, leading to her current, and more well-known, title as the “mother of WiFi” [1].

Living in a world in which beautiful women were thought to be best viewed instead of heard, Hedy Lamarr fought for respect and acknowledgement for achievements beyond her outward appearance. Although it took many years for this deserved recognition to be granted, we now know who to thank for our abilities to carry around laptops, tablets, and smart phones, surfing the Internet, sending emails, and listening to music without a mass of cables connecting our devices to the wall. Lamarr’s courage and resilience is inspiring, proving that a college degree and career in STEM is but one way to become an inventor. All you truly need is passion and perseverance.

Want to learn more about this Science Hero?

If you want to learn more about the inspiration behind Lamarr’s frequency hopping invention, check out this video!

Have a Young Explorer that would benefit from knowing this Science Hero? Head over to the Young Explorers column for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers.

Abby Morris is a PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She is interested in studying seasonal differences in gorilla movement and behavior. While Abby loves studying monkeys and apes, she also enjoys hiking around California to look for local wildlife!


[1] Cheslak, C. (2018). Hedy Lamarr. National Women’s History Museum. Retrieved from

[2] George, A. (2019). Thank this World War II-Era Film Star for your Wi-Fi. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from

[3] Miller, H.L. (2022). How Hedy Lamarr and Her Inventions Changed the World. Leaders. Retrieved from,What%20Did%20Hedy%20Lamarr%20Invent%3F,was%20nothing%20short%20of%20shallow

[4] PBS Learning Media. (n.d.) Hedy Lamarr | Women in World War II. Retrieved from

[Edited by Jessica Schaefer and Abby Morris]

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