Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood beauty and… inventor of secret military technology?

Hedy Lamarr was one of the great leading ladies of Hollywood in the 1930’s and 40’s. Some regard her as the most beautiful woman who ever graced the silver screen. Her heyday began almost 80 years ago, but her name is still well-known, certainly to movie buffs.

Even with a passing acquaintance from film studies, I, with an interest in both classic cinema and novel technologies, missed the fact that Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor.

She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Together with a friend, she patented technology in 1941 to prevent interception of military radio signals by the enemy. Their innovation used spread spectrum and frequency hopping to obscure information. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because your wifi relies upon Lamarr’s idea, as do cell phones.

Who knew?

But, then again, why are we surprised?

Perhaps Lamarr, herself, provides a clue with this quote:

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

She certainly was glamorous. Equally obvious: she wasn’t stupid.

Young women should not avoid STEM careers for fear of appearing unfeminine. Here’s a great example of a beautiful lady whose brain was as impressive as her countenance.

Another Lamarr quote provides a hint to the secret of her many successes:

“I win because I learned years ago that scared money always loses. I never care, so I win.”

Worry less about what others think, and more about what you can do. This is particularly compelling advice for women, who are likely to be judged less capable before they even begin.

You can’t win if you’re afraid to enter the race.

Smart women know what they have to offer. They should also feel free to remain attractive while they’re proving it. If that’s a distraction to the men in the room, use the advantage to move on past them while they’re addled. They can’t help it; they were born with this biological disadvantage.*

The reverse is equally true, of course. You don’t have to look like Hedy Lamarr to be a kick ass engineer, but I don’t think the internet needs an essay from me to assume a technological wunderkind looks more like Velma than Daphne.**

Apologies to Hedy Lamarr, Velma, Daphne, and the field of art in general for the quality of my sketches. No actual character, living or dead, real or fictional, is indicated by the drawings above. I was looking to illustrate stereotypes in 60 seconds with a Sharpie.


*I’m tired of hearing bad science spouted about biological differences. I think it’s stupid to shut down discussion of the topic. All reasonable debate of possibilities is valid and can lead to gains in knowledge. However, is an area in which theories are constantly conflated with facts. Nonsense cuts both ways.

**Scooby Doo reference; original 1969 animated series, naturally

5 thoughts on “Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood beauty and… inventor of secret military technology?

    • Proof that hiding in plain sight really is an option.

      I think the 1980’s spy show “Scarecrow & Mrs. King” had an episode where a cooking show was a method of transmitting coded messages to the Russians.

      It’s an interesting field to exploit for intelligence purposes. I suppose a chef might want to study cuisine anywhere.

  1. Yes, England has had a big problem with #distractinglysexy female scientists in the past…



    You women “can’t help it; [you] were born with this biological disadvantage.*” I only recently had this debate on Facebook with a friend of a friend, who saw “no harm” whatsoever in what, I and all other contributors, saw as a kind of casual sexism that was just accepted. I have a kind of optimistic outlook, but I look at both my daughters, and I know that even in their professional lives (both are talented in STEM fields, one at the University of Toronto), they are going to face, and deal with, attitudes and prejudices that – as a white, middle-class male – I never encountered.

    And I always thought Velma was wayyyy more cool than Daphne.

    • I saw the up side to studying STEM as a girl in the quantitative nature of evaluations. It felt very “pure” to me–how can you grade a math problem with bias? (Mostly lower level math, I know, but the process is inherently more fair than evaluating, say, an artwork.)

      I always felt judged FOR MY ACCOMPLISHMENTS at work as a software engineer (with awareness that I had social/professional competence going in, because I’m privileged.) I found it easier to WORK in a technology company than I did to STUDY such fields as a teenaged girl in public school.

      I attended a women’s college, and that, more than anything, led me to experience a paradigm shift. Even as a bold and outspoken young woman, it was revelatory.

  2. I think, like I said above, there has been a huge improvement since I did my degree in biological sciences in the 90s, and doing a PhD now. For a start, women professors outnumber the men by a large margin, whereas, in the 90s, it was the other way around. In my professional life though, as an IT consultant, I stopped going to technical shows, and gave my invites/tickets out to anybody that wanted them… I just got too fed up with an all-male environment, that was both furtively, and overtly sexist. On one truly excruciating occasion, a tech’ stand featured swimsuit wearing models, playing with joysticks. A female colleague took a photo and included it in a trade magazine rant, which drew even more sexist critique from the readership.

    Tech’ I think is one of those areas where women receive some of the most overt “business-class” sexism I have seen. I have worked in other fields, and I just can’t make up my mind which pi$$e$ me off more, the hidden, glass-ceiling, quiet men’s room discussion, sexism of the business-world; or the more overt, that can at least be addressed by people that don’t agree with the ignorance.

    Either way, western society may be getting better, but while we criticize some nations for “imposing male values” on women, whilst supporting public figures that put women down for their appearance, and excuse sexual assault as “locker-room talk”, then I can’t help but think we have a bloody long way to go.

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