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'Bombshell' shatters myth around Wi-Fi inventor Hedy Lamarr

Coinciding with International Women's Day, a documentary looks at the life of Hedy Lamarr, the glamorous actress who led a secret life as an inventor.

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Hedy Lamarr made your smartphone possible.

You might know her as the "most beautiful woman in the world," a tag she always hated. Lamarr got her start in a 1933 Czech movie called "Ecstasy." Then, she struck out for America, where she starred in "Tortilla Flat," "Samson and Delilah" and other movies made during Hollywood's Golden Age.

But Lamarr found Tinseltown shallow. She avoided parties, noodling instead on drafting boards she had installed at home. She improved the design of traffic lights, invented a tablet that dissolved into a soft drink, and reimagined the wings of a fuel-efficient plane for Howard Hughes. Her most enduring invention: a form of frequency hopping that was the forerunner of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS, all of which sit in your phone.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

Clarence Bull/MGM

You didn't know that, did you?

"When we close our eyes, we don't see a female inventor. We see Thomas Edison," says Alexandra Dean, explaining why she chose to direct "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story," a new documentary on Lamarr's life. "This actress had done this groundbreaking invention and never been recognised."

Lamarr isn't the only gifted woman who worked in the shadows of her husband or male colleagues. Rosalind Franklin helped discover the structure of DNA; Ada Lovelace authored early computer programs and algorithms; and Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. But it was their male colleagues who won recognition and Nobel Prizes. The numbers reflect it: Women have won 48 Nobel Prizes compared with 844 for men. In the sciences, women have won just 19.  

"There is no track record to show how many women were not admitted in any scientific circle," said Gwenaelle Proust, an associate professor at the University of Sydney's School of Civil Engineering, adding that women in Lamarr's era were sometimes prevented from entering labs. "Who knows how many great minds were overlooked because of their gender?"

That's where "Bombshell" comes in. The movie plays this week in Australia and the UK to coincide with the celebration of International Women's Day, on Thursday. (It had a limited run in the US last year and will be shown on PBS on May 18.) Women's Day celebrates women's contributions in areas such as politics, technology and science.

For Dean, who's produced TV documentaries in the past, Lamarr's story allowed her to explore a question that had bothered her for years: Why are female inventors overlooked?

"One of the things that kept coming up was women in Silicon Valley not finding it easy to raise money," Dean said, referring to her experience on a show called "Innovators, Adventures and Pursuits".

It was only by remarkable effort that employees of The News

The actress spent her free time off-camera noodling on a drafting board, inventing things.

New York Daily News Archive

"Bombshell" presented a new challenge for Dean, who was directing for the first time in her career. Her goal was to give the actress the recognition she deserved and to present a three-dimensional portrait of Lamarr -- a complicated personality who was married and divorced six times and once sued Warner Bros. for exploiting her name in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles".

Dean says she got some help from Fleming Meeks, a journalist who'd recorded a candid interview with Lamarr in 1990, when the actress was 76. Dean reached out.

"That was a really major breakthrough," she says.

In addition, Dean sent out dozens of letters to actors and actresses connected to Lamarr about plans to dig deeper into the actress' inventing career, and she wound up interviewing Diane Kruger and Mel Brooks for the movie. She also found an unexpected champion.

Susan Sarandon had extensively researched Lamarr for a docudrama TV series called "Feud," in which she played the legend Bette Davis, the real-life godmother to Lamarr's children. Sarandon joined as executive producer and offered her home in New York as office space. Dean says Sarandon would wander in, take a look at what was being worked on, give a few notes, then wander out.

"She gave us a lot of perspective on what it's like today to be a woman in Hollywood and what it was like back then," Dean said.

Sarandon didn't respond to an interview request for this article.

bombshell

Lamarr starred in many MGM movies, including 1940's "I Take This Woman" with Spencer Tracy.

"Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story"

Dean's movie starts with Lamarr's youth in Austria, where she was born Hedwig Kiesler. After a start in cinema at 19, she married Fritz Mandl, a rich Austrian weapons manufacturer who worked with the Nazis. Like many of Lamarr's relationships, the marriage didn't last.

To escape, she set sail for America in 1937, meeting Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer co-founder Louis B. Mayer on the boat. He cast her in his movies, often in the role of seductress, and changed her name to Hedy Lamarr.

At a friend's home, Lamarr met pianist and "Ballet Mecanique" composer George Antheil, who shared her passion for inventing. That was 1940, a few years before the US joined World War II.

Lamarr and Antheil were determined to help defend against German attacks. Inspired by a piano roll -- perforated paper that controls player pianos -- Lamarr and Antheil developed a device that would guide torpedos to their targets using a radio signal that "hopped" among 88 frequencies. The constant change, they figured, would prevent enemies from locking on to the torpedo.

The pair were granted US Patent No. 2,292,387 for their technology in 1942, but the military didn't take the system's movie star co-inventor seriously. She and Antheil didn't see a dime even though the military later used their technology -- as did the world, in cell phones, Bluetooth and other wireless communications.

"Some people get erased and fall through the gaps," Dean says. "Hedy was one of those people."

It took a long time, but Lamarr and Antheil are now widely recognized as the inventors of frequency hopping, which led to the development of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. In 1997, when Lamarr was 82, the Electronic Frontier Foundation honoured her with two awards for her achievement.

She died three years later.

Last year, the Digital Entertainment Group, an American association that supports and promotes entertainment platforms, awarded Geena Davis its Hedy Lamarr Award for Innovation in Entertainment Technology for her work on gender and media. The award recognises women who have made a significant contribution to the entertainment and technology industries.

Lamarr was also was the subject of a Google Doodle a few years back.

So if you're reading this on your phone, spare a thought for the woman who contributed to its creation.

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